Since opening its doors in March, 2010, Uburanga Art Studio has swiftly emerged as one of Rwanda’s leading art organizations. But it is more than that. Behind it’s abstract forms and vibrant paint strokes lies a powerful story of the potential for business when people and planet come before profit.
Jean Bosco Bakunzi, a 26 year old survivor and orphan of the genocide, founded Uburanga Art Studio, named after the Kinyarwanda word for “beauty” with the mission “to heal people mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” Already representing eleven other young visual artists, Uburanga is evolving into Rwanda’s leading incubator of artistic talent. In addition to training and connecting its artists to commercial markets, Bakunzi leads a number of projects in the community. One such project involves weekly arts and crafts classes held for children living at the Gisimba Orphanage and throughout the studio’s hillside neighborhood. The artists of Uburanga teach the children to make postcards and jewelry which are sold to tourists and admirers. All of the proceeds are then reinvested into the program to purchase art supplies for the classes and to help the children pay for school fees, health care, and other living expenses. Bakunzi’s eyes light up when he talks about his students: “With this project, we are able to help children deal with the traumas and challenges they have faced in their lives by inspiring them and helping develop their skills and creativity so that they can look to a brighter future.”
Bakunzi also encourages his young artists to seek inspiration through nature and Uburanga prides itself on environmentally sustainable artwork. Across half of the property slopes a grassy hill brought to life by vibrant forms made of materials from the local landfill – a theme park of animated scrap metal and old auto parts. A crane made of bottle caps spreads its wings to fly. Car tires labeled peace, love, dream, and life appear to bounce freely around the yard. Enclosing the property is a brick wall splashed with a sequence of colorful murals envisioning Rwanda’s bright future.
Narrowly escaping death in 1994, eight-year-old Bakunzi led his four younger siblings to a local orphanage where they were hidden and protected for over three months until the end of the genocide. For the next several years, Bakunzi lived at Gisimba Orphanage. Seeking to overcome the agony and confusion of losing his family and the hatred for the people who took their lives, he sought healing by experimenting with crayons, pastels and whatever else he could find. After school, he would lose himself for hours, painting out his emotions onto canvases of all forms without any guidance other than classic images of artists like Picasso and Marc Chagall.
As Bakunzi continued to paint, his reputation grew. He quickly became a sought after resource for NGO’s and small businesses seeking graphic design work on signposts throughout the country. He was not compensated for his work, however his new network provided a market for his colorful paintings and a means to further cultivate his skills and provide for his younger brothers and sisters. Bakunzi’s paintings became known for their fluidity, semi-abstract forms, unique textures, and diverse explosions of color, often espousing themes of traditional Rwandan culture.
Last week, one of Bakunzi’s dreams became a reality when he arrived in the US for the first time. He traveled up and down California’s coastline to showcase his paintings and tell the Uburanga story at pop-up art shows from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Orange County. Every day, Ubranga Art Studio lives out its mission to heal people through beauty. In Rwanda, Uburanga inspires hope in the youth of Rwanda. Now, the studio is reaching across continents and cultures to touch the hearts of people in America, Germany and Luxumbourg.
Ask Bakunzi about his vision for the future of the studio and you will hear even greater ambitions. He hopes to someday pursue a college degree in graphic design, but wants to wait until he has paid off tuition for his youngest brother who himself is studying graphic design at a college in Nairobi, Kenya. Eventually, Bakunzi hopes to grow Uburanga into a multimedia art studio spanning multiple continents that seeks to inspire people toward reconciliation of past conflict and catalyze human connection across cultural and regional boundaries – all the while generating profit and embracing environmentally sustainability.
Let us celebrate Uburanga Art Studio as reminder that the principles of people, planet and profit can extend across oceans, cultures and social disciplines to an art studio striving to heal a battle-scared nation in the middle of Africa.
Travis Noland is the newly hired Director of Business Development at Triple Pundit. In 2010, he lived and worked in Kigali, Rwanda where he became good friends with Jean Bosco Bakunzi. Bakunzi recently visited Travis for his first trip in the US. Together they traveled throughout California last week to share the inspiring story of Uburanga Art Studio.