The Independent (Kampala)

Uganda: Underwater Art

Rwandan artists should dare to challenge conventional art and search for new ways of expression. That is the message of 'Art Under Water', a project which combines under-water photography with paintings that was displayed in Kigali recently.

What happens when you ask five talented Rwandan artists to paint on a canvas of under-water photographs? That is what Lars Norman Hestbaek, a Danish under-water photographer and artist travelled to Rwanda to find out. Working together with five young Rwandan artists for three weeks, Hestbaek aimed to merge different cultures and art forms: Photography and painting, Rwanda and Denmark.

The Danish photographer, who has travelled the world, taking artistic photographs under the water surface, came to Rwanda to challenge young artists to seek inspiration from new places and think beyond the conventional ways when working with their paintings. "It seems to me that many Rwandan artists paint what they think the tourists would want to buy instead of focusing on what they want to express as artists. The aim of this project is to make the artists be innovative. To look in new directions for inspiration than they usually do and move away from the idea of tourist art," Hestbaek noted.

New challenge, inspiration:

In Kigali, artists were ready to show the results of their work before the paintings are sent to Denmark to be exhibited on a big international art festival.

Tony Cyizanye from Ivuka Arts Centre in Kigali was one of the artists involved in the project. Cyizanye normally produces traditional Rwandan art, and for him it was very challenging to use photography as background for his painting.

"It was new to me to work like this. I was very inspired by working with the world under water. It was fun. I got some more photos from Lars and I want to paint on them too, explore it further," Cyizanye said.

The street artist known as 'Plays', from Nyamirambo, a Kigali city suburb, was struggling with the concept of the project.

"I had no idea you could mix digital photography and painting. I actually misunderstood the project and painted over the entire photograph, because I thought, this must be a mistake. Learning that you can mix the two things has given me so much inspiration, and now I really want to try it again," he said at the exhibition.

Innocent Nkurunziza from Inema Arts Centre appreciates the project because he says it allows artists to play with their art and inspiration from others.

"Rwanda doesn't have a very strong art community, so things like this definitely help us to grow as artists ," Nkurunza said, adding, "It is important that we get our country's history out through art, and working with Lars has been very inspirational."

Expanding Rwandan art:

The Ministry of Sports and Culture agrees that Rwandan artists can benefit from international inspiration to look beyond traditional art.

"There is so much potential for artists in Rwanda. I think it is very important to keep challenging them and give them new inspiration through projects like this. We want Rwandan art to expand and spread to the rest of the world," Arlette Ruyonza, an officer in charge of art promotion at Ministry said. A strong art community and continuous support to artists are crucial factors for Rwandan artists to grow. And so is their willingness to take risks, according to Andreas Noerlem, CEO of Educat, a Danish organisation which has operations in Rwanda and supported the project.

Government support:

It is very important to keep challenging artists in Rwanda to exploit their potential. Making good artists requires willingness to invest in them, providing them trainings and a good framework for them to develop, take chances and risk to fail in order to succeed. "This is where the government comes in," Noerlem said.

Ruyonza supports this argument that "Culture, creativity and entrepreneurship are strongly interlinked and constitutes very important components in the development of our country." "Cultural entrepreneurs are the front runners of creativity and innovation, and supporting these is an important part of government strategies of cultural development. It is through projects like this we can bring international inspiration to Rwanda and not least bring Rwandan culture to the world."

The paintings produced in Kigali have been sent to Denmark where they will be displayed at a big international art festival. More artists will have the chance to paint on Lars' under-water photographs in the next phase.

Although the project prompted many challenges and misunderstandings, Hestbaek was happy with the results.

"I told myself before coming here that even if we only produced one good piece of art, it would be a success. To me it was just as much about the process and the cultural meeting, and from that we have all learned a lot, no doubt. And the guys did actually make some really nice pictures," he said.

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