Rwanda: Can Art Bring Peace?

20 July 2007

Washington, D.C. — Simon Bikindi is currently standing trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), facing charges for war crimes committed during the country's 1994 genocide. Bikindi is a former Rwandan pop musician whose anti-Tutsi songs were regularly broadcast over the notorious Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines.

But if music can be used to incite genocide, it can also be used to create peace and a climate of reconciliation. Thirty students, teachers, and artists will head to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, this week as part of a joint program run by the School of Theater at the California Institute for the Arts in the United States and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda.

Erik Ehn, dean of the School of Theater and co-founder of the program, believes that art has a very large part to play in Rwanda's reconciliation efforts. "Art is the way we create, organize, and disseminate ideas of who we are," he said. "Art can be used for a very negative purpose as it was during the genocide with Simon Bikindi. Yet in the same way art can be used to redefine us, or to re-own history."

Ehn has partnered with Jean-Pierre Karegeye of the center in Kigali to create the two-week program, which is now entering its third year. The program's goal, said Ehn, is to "study the genocide and to look at the ways the performing arts can contribute to the process of recovery."

The 30 participants in this year's program will visit genocide sites, meet with victims and perpetrators, listen to lectures by government officials and academics and hold workshops with Rwandan artists. The American participants will not only learn about the genocide so that they can better represent it in their art, but also will help Rwandan artists to find their own voice and express their ideas about the genocide and its aftermath.

"Reciprocity is a really important part of this," Leslie Tamaribuchi said, associate dean at the School of Theater at CalArts.

Tamaribuchi, also a participant in the program, believes that fostering the artistic expression of Rwandans is an important goal of the program. "The narrative of the genocide is a narrative that was propagated in a very monolithic way, and these cultural expressions that are growing up in the aftermath are very tender, diverse, and fragile."

Tamaribuchi has already seen some of the program's benefits. Last summer, a genocide survivor wrote a play based on her experience during the program. "She as a survivor hadn't articulated her experience in any form really before, and here was a creative expression of her experience during the genocide that she not only managed to craft, but she also released it back to the community of survivors," she said.

Some U.S.-based participants who went on last year's trip were also able to raise funds to buy a group of Rwandan filmmakers a large inflatable screen. They use the screen to show their movies in villages across the Rwandan countryside.

But for Tamaribuchi, working together is the most important aspect of the program."What is it to trust each other enough to work together, and what does that mean especially in Rwanda, especially post genocide?"

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