Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now

Shahidha Bari finds vivid and lurid representations of the unnerving normality of the everyday in today’s Rwanda

March 27, 2014

Source: Fabrice Musafiri

Interior life: young men in a DVD store, intensely focused around a screen, seem to not notice the photographer’s intrusion

Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now
Until 30 April 2014
Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, Strand Campus, King’s College London

If you are familiar with the national flag of Rwanda you will know that it consists of three bright bands of colour: striped from top to bottom, sky blue, yellow and green, with a spiky golden sun nestling in the upper right corner. It is a pleasing and optimistic flag for a country that might be seen to be seeking to identify itself in similar terms. And poetic, too: the blue signifies happiness and peace, the yellow, economic development and mineral wealth, the green, hope of prosperity and natural resources, while the sun symbolises unity, enlightenment and understanding. I concede to knowing this only because I took a moment to look it up after visiting the new exhibition on contemporary Rwandan photography currently occupying the Inigo Rooms at the Cultural Institute of King’s College London. But my ignorance of Rwanda, shared by many others, I suspect, extends considerably beyond questions of flag colour.

At the entrance to the exhibition, the curators pose a simple question: “How do you see Rwanda?” The collection that follows is duly presented as an attempt to expand the limited register by which those outside Rwanda might have understood or preconceived of the Central-East African state. The exhibition is dedicated to prising open a window into contemporary Rwanda and in so doing, perhaps, attempts to loosen what might be seen as its intractable historical associations with genocide and civil war. In some way, my inability to recall the national flag is indicative of the scale of the educative work to which an exhibition like this commits itself. This educative component speaks both to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s incentive in funding the project and also the home that the project claims in the dedicated gallery space of a university.

And photography, as this exhibition often demonstrates, is an efficient and engaging medium by which to impart that education. The images, collated from the work of 10 specially selected photographers, competently suggest a sense of place and people, intimated in the particularities of colour palettes, surprising details and juxtapositions. This is a vivid and evocative exhibition of people, through which we learn about their varying homes, workplaces, families, landscapes, animals and arts. But in other ways, this is an exhibition that also defeats itself, intimating what is not there and the complexity of a fuller narrative that could never find any medium equal to its enormously difficult task.

Fabrice Musafiri’s “street photography” provides a good example here. His large, cluttered prints present young Rwandan men intent on the business of their industrious daily lives. In one shot, a young man levelly meets our gaze, stood calm and proprietorial, deep inside a brightly coloured market stall brimful of footballs, plastic guitars, stuffed toys and soaps – the detritus of disposable modern life and the stuff of his livelihood. In another shot, Musafiri’s lens peers into the strip-lit shopfront of a DVD store, reaching into the interior life of the young men gathered behind a disc-stacked counter: intently focused on a screen, they seem not to notice Musafiri’s intrusion and so we catch their faces fleetingly illuminated in the recognisably lurid modernity of neon lights. Musafiri’s barber shop scene is similarly expressive of the industry, energy and entrepreneurialism of young Rwandan men that is so evidently his theme, except that, in the far right of the foreground, his camera, by some happenstance, also captures a young man perfectly in profile, clasping a rucksack to his chest and leaning against the interior wall that makes for the outside edge of our frame. He falls into the sweep of our vision and so is subject to our inspection, except that his eyes are unreadable, focused elsewhere. He is a million miles away.

Rwandan refugees search for belongings

And in the moment of inaccessibility, one might suddenly remember something else – which is that a young man in 2014 would have lived through the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which 100-day period, from April to mid-July, between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandans were killed. To think in this way is, perhaps, to stray from the object of the exhibition itself, which is to present, as its title suggests, Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now, the emphasis decidedly on the latter. And yet, that our thoughts invariably stray back to the “death then” is in its own way a testament to the power of the “life now” presented by Musafiri and others, and forged as it has been against enormous adversity and trauma. The exhibition brochure tells us that Musafiri’s street photos “convey the movement and liveliness” of the Biryogo district of Kigali, but it also notes his training at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. This tells – not only in what he photographs, but in what he does not. For viewers, it is immensely hard not to gaze upon the people of these images and imagine how very easily they might not be there, even as they are.

This is not to say that life is not here in this exhibition – it surely is, and the Rwanda we see is vital, populated and preoccupied, time and again. John Mbanda’s fruit-seller is caught in the foreground of a market scene, lurching into a blurred shot, bearing on her head a basket piled high with green mangoes, for ever on the cusp of toppling over – bright, lucid and vivid. Similarly, Yves Manzi’s sequence of landscapes juxtaposes the colour of local fauna with the sharp angles of contemporary architecture, purple bougainvillea clustering behind gleaming aluminium huts and sloping red fibreglass roofs – the mixed materials somehow perfectly expressive of a Rwanda rising from the rubble, ambitious and resourceful. Even Cyril Ndegeya’s curiously fixated series of road traffic accident scenes – all askew trucks, upturned motorcycles, averted gazes and blood-strewn roads – patiently document the rough and rushed life of a city that could be any city.

Rwanda car accident

Slightly differently, Mussa Uwitonze’s haunting portraits of homeless youths along with Timothy Chester’s refugee camp images speak of life, too, even when it is a difficult one. Chester gives us a woman queuing for clothes, paperwork in hand and child on hip, an intent look in her eyes and a lengthy administrative process ahead of her. There is a patiently borne fatigue, but this is modern Rwanda too: striving, building, ongoing. The most effective exhibits in this collection comfortably cross over the genres of aesthetic naturalism and photojournalism. Less successful, though, are the efforts at abstraction – a room filled with oblique shapes and sculptures, botanical drawings of fruit and fauna sealed in Perspex screens, is rather puzzling and jars next to the unaffected simplicity of the rest of the exhibition. Jenny Matthews’ screen-printed faces weakly gesture at an under-formulated idea of memory and domesticity. The stakes are so high and the ambition behind this exhibition so considerable, that perhaps we are harder on the works that seem to miss the mark.

But academic Zoe Norridge’s text-image collaboration with Musafiri and Brendan Bannon, shortly to be hosted on the AHRC website, is a thoughtful, affecting and intelligent exercise, generously giving voice to the subjects of the photographs themselves. In one of the sequences, we are placed in a darkened schoolroom looking across to a bustling playground, and then led to a solitary mourner at a graveside against a backdrop of high mountains and low skies. The text recounts the memory of a schoolroom shooting. So much of this exhibition is bright, busy, full, but there are ghosts here, too, who are still so powerfully a part of the life that flourishes in Rwanda.

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