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Kakizi Jemima: Using Art To Spark Conversations

Anjellah Owino talked to the curator, painter, lay counsellor, and activist and found out more about her work.

BY Anjellah Owino

Feb 19, 2023, 11:37 AM

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Kakizi Jemima is a curator, painter, lay counsellor, and activist based in Kigali, Rwanda. The main themes in her creative explorations revolve around sisterhood, mental health, and the protection of the environment.

Her curatorial practice focuses on female artists in order to increase their visibility. Her just concluded, two-phased exhibition, "Walk with me," addresses the role of the community in ending the social stigma around mental health.

Being her fifth exhibition she featured 10 artists including Uwera Udile, Teta Chel, Natacha Muziramakenga, Christel Arras, Ines Ineza, Rutamu U. Fabiola, Kayibanda Alice, Ingride Mukundente, Poupoute and Birara Myriam.
Photo: Dushric
Kakizi is also one of the founders of the Rwandan Women Artists Collective, which gives more opportunities and visibility to women artists. She wants to see the next generation of artists have sustainable creative livelihoods. She was recently nominated for Forbes Women Africa (social impact). 

She spoke to Anjellah Owino about the "WALK WITH ME" exhibition, why community is fundamental in her artistic practice and the promise of Rwanda’s art scene.

AO: What is

KJ: It is a passion project that brought together photography, installation art, drawings, and paintings - nine Rwandan women visual artists and one French artist living in Rwanda. It features 28 artworks, calls for an end to social stigma in mental health, and seeks communal support and empathy towards people going through mental health challenges.

The first phase of the show opened on January 7 at L’espace in Kigali, and during its closing on January 28, we had an engaging panel discussion with mental health workers and the audience. 

It was surprising to see so many people show up for the discussion and share their testimonies because most youth love music and art events but find conversations boring.

The second phase is a travelling exhibition from February 11 and runs until March 30 in Rwanda's youth centres and learning institutions. We hope to educate through art.
Photo: Dushric
AO: Why was setting up an exhibition important to you?

KJ: I have always wanted to curate a show to advocate for mental health care. Rwanda has seen traumatic events like genocide and the recent COVID-19, yet mental health is taboo in our community. 

We don’t talk enough about how to help ourselves or the person next to us during difficult life experiences. I wanted to wake people up and start shameless conversations about how normal it is to not feel okay. I worked with artists from different mediums to engage the community visually.
Photo: Dushric
AO: How did you plan for this exhibition, and when did you know it was ready for the public?

KJ: I began to plan for it in May last year. Before contacting the artists, I had to put everything in order. When the artists come in, my work is to explain the exhibition concept to them and give them the time and freedom to express themselves the way they want. It is interesting to see how they each came up with unique work from the same idea. A show is ready for the public when the pieces and the artists are ready.
Photo: Dushric
AO: What challenges do you face in your curatorial work?

KJ: Getting sponsorships to put up exhibitions is difficult. In the beginning, I was self-funding. Working with different artists requires flexibility and patience. I don’t expect people to have the same perspective as I do.

AO: Were you always interested in art?

KJ: I have always been creating with my hands. As a child, I would draw, colour, and sew earrings using kitenge fabric and later venture into fashion design. My journey as a painter began right before I finished high school. On Facebook, I learned about the Nyundo School of Arts and Music, the only art school in Rwanda. 

I reached out to two visual artists who went to the school, Niyonsaba Serge and Seezerano Onesime, and asked them if I could visit them to see what they did. I learned how to paint by going to their workshop and using their art supplies. I’m here because they introduced me to the art of painting. It is also what inspired me to do whatever I can to help other artists. I enjoy giving back.
Photo: Dushric
AO: How would you describe your art?

KJ: I do semi-abstract paintings and installation art. My paintings explore subjects that are rarely talked about but that bring positive change to the community.

For my installations, I recycle plastic bottles to teach about climate change and environmental conservation. Art supplies are expensive too, so I hope to inspire other artists by demonstrating that we can use recycled materials to create art.

Also, recycling is not new in my community. We grew up recycling items out of necessity when we didn’t know that what we were doing was good for the environment. It was critical for me to communicate this to my community through my art. In every project that I do, my focus is to build awareness or start conversations.
Re-introducing Myself (2022) | Kakizi Jemima | Acrylic on canvas | 90 x 70 cm | Courtesy of the artist
AO: Why did you choose semi-abstract art?

KJ: It is abstract and has figurative elements. It can make the audience want to think and freely interpret it for themselves. It fuels an interesting conversation.

AO: What inspires you as a visual artist?

KJ: I like to learn new things from debates, the news, people, and books. Culture inspires me too. Even when I learn new things, I can’t forget who I am and where I come from. Culture and modernization can complement each other. In fact, culture can inspire modernization.

For instance, in my piece titled "I am the wine," I show a woman in full glamour enjoying a glass of wine. She is adorned in amasunzu, a traditional Rwandan hairstyle that was worn by men and unmarried women to send a message to potential suitors that wanted to be courted.
Courtesy of Kakizi Jemima
AO: What would you say needs to improve when it comes to the Rwandan art scene?

KJ: I would like to see more female artists gain visibility. I urge writers to acknowledge and document our contributions to art history. I encourage arts organizations to include us in boardroom meetings. We face a lot of challenges and family roles that have kept many of us from creative pursuits.

And yet, when I curate a show, I have had people ask me why I didn't involve men, but they don’t ask men why their shows don’t have women. It is not about a gender tug-of-war, though; we are here to address issues in our art scene, one of which is the lack of visibility of female artists.
Photo: Dushric
AO: What do you find most fascinating about Rwanda’s art scene?

KJ: It is growing. We have more artists, spaces, and exhibitions. Rwandans are getting more interested in knowing about what we do and buying our art. We cannot get community support if they don’t understand what it is that we do. I have worked on projects that addressed teenage pregnancy and peer pressure with the community, and they received our art well. I also like that government and private institutions are hiring artists to use art to educate.

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