April 19, 2024

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Creative Arts: Unlocking Hope for Refugees

From the left to the right: Timothy Wandulu, Rwandan artist; Ingabire Umulisa and Heritier Mugisha - both Congolese refugees

At the public entrance to the Kigali Triennale Art exhibition, Heritier Mugisha and Ingabire Umulisa – both Congolese refugees – tighten a bolt onto a metal tube, with a spanner in hand. Behind them, there is a row of metallic suitcases that they would later help to transform into something more— an art installation speaking volumes about the journey of refugees.

Entitled “Before I Leave,” the immersive art installation featuring a walkway at its center, was one of the iconic artworks featured at the 10-day continental art exhibition in Kigali. It was conceived by Timothy Wandulu, a Rwandan artist who was assisted in bringing it to life by the two refugees from Nyabiheke camp.

This piece explores the experiences of refugees using visual elements, symbolism, and sensory engagement to highlight the challenges they face on their journey seeking safety with their resilience symbolized by metallic suitcases.

Heritier believes that the art installation will effectively convey the narratives of refugee experiences beyond spoken words.

“I hope the viewers get a message from this, like that a refugee has a hope that one day there will be a door [open] for them, and their resilience will help them to achieve more,” explains the 24-year-old refugee, adding that the artwork will help visitors to understand the struggles and hustle that refugees across the world face.

Forced to flee his native village at the age of five due to insecurity and political instability in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Heritier started experiencing “many horrible things that are so scary” at such a tender age.

And he finds solace in telling his refugee experiences through creative art.

“When I always think about “Before I Leave,” it reflects my whole life because it has all the chapters of my life; every part of this artwork means a lot to me. As a refugee myself, I can call it the story of my life,” he says.

He believes that art is the best way to express the challenges and journeys of refugees globally because art can speak for many years, even beyond an artist’s lifespan.

Heritier, Umulisa, and Timothy were able to express refugee experiences through art with support from UNHCR.

Ms. Aissatou M. Ndiaye, the UNHCR Representative in Rwanda, says, “In partnering with Rwandan artists, the UN agency is fostering an exchange of ideas and cultures to bring people together through a shared appreciation for art. As we participate in the 2024 Kigali Triennial, we are planting the seeds for a future where refugee artists are not just participants but leaders in the art world. We hope to break down stereotypes, build connections, and create an environment where refugees feel not just accepted, but celebrated for their contributions to the artistic landscape,” explains the UNHCR Representative.”

The impact of such initiatives extends far beyond the walls of the exhibition hall. UNHCR envisions a long-term commitment to nurturing and sustaining a refugee-led organization of artists in Rwanda, providing a platform for them to thrive independently.

“By fostering the growth of a refugee-led organization, we aim to create a sustainable model that empowers refugee artists to shape their narratives; and learn transferable business and vocational skills,” Ms. Aissatou explains. “This not only ensures the preservation of cultural heritage but also serves as a sign of hope for individuals who have faced forced displacement.”

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