The Kigali-social enterprise using public art to debate social issues

A Kurema mural addressing the stigma of positive living and HIV/AIDS. Image: Sarine Arslanian.

Public art has an inherent civic purpose. Not only does it bring people and places closer, it can also invigorate a neighbourhood’s identity and activity. Recognising the arts’ potential to connect individuals to their localities, and to each other, many communities around the world have used the medium as an innovative communications tool.

So it is that a group of Rwandan artists are now using their work to re-shape the urban landscape of the capital, Kigali. Their participation in thriving public art projects is a reflection of the increased cultural awareness and growing civic engagement that can be seen throughout the country.

“Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga” – to create, to see, to learn – is a Kigali-based social enterprise, supporting such projects in Rwanda. By bringing together government and artists, public and private sectors, to create something of shared value, the group is successfully designing opportunities to bring arts to the streets, and engage more people in the arts in untraditional and unexpected places.

One of the murals addressing the stigma of positive living and HIV/AIDS. Image: Sarine Arslanian.

Kurema’s founder and director, Judith Kaine, has played a pivotal role in facilitating art in the public realm. In her work, positivity, flexibility and a can-do attitude are essential in getting things done – especially when confronted with complicated administrative processes which involve permitting agencies, different stakeholders, and limited funding sources.

The key to the social enterprise’s work is a participatory and collaborative approach: it involves local communities not only in the planning, but also the creation of the artwork. This brings the art closer to the people, makes them understand its messages better, and thus increases its potential as a vehicle for positive change. So far, Rwanda has seem a spate of new murals which promote reconciliation and address stigmas, such as the ones around HIV and AIDS, and positive living.

Isakari Umuhire, a contemporary Rwandan artist and muralist. Image: Sarine Arslanian.

Isakari Umuhire, a contemporary Rwandan artist who works with Kurema, admits sharing similar values with the public arts enterprise. “We both want to take the arts to the next level,” he says.

His fellow citizens do not know much about contemporary arts at present, he argues. “Instead of having the paintings stuck in galleries and studios that not many people visit, with Kurema’s support, we can bring our art to the public and raise awareness.”

Another mural referencing the AIDS stigma. Image: Sarine Arslanian.

The public art scene is relatively new in the country, Kaine says, and “because we are doing something new and unexpected, there is always going to be a challenge of matching supply with demand.”

Improving the quality of that supply is key – and Kurema is working hard to build increased demand for such a product, too “This translates into pushing the artist to go further and try to really inspire people to see that there is value in art being in your everyday life and public places,” Kaine says.

Bruce Niyonkuru,  a contemporary Rwandan artist and muralist posing in front of his work. Image: Sarine Arslanian.

There are many among this new generation of Rwandan artists who use their art as a vehicle for positive change, challenging conventional wisdom and trying to have a lasting impact on their communities. They are talented, ambitious, often self-taught, and ready to engage in international dialogues and cross cultural exchanges.

Kurema murals addressing the stigma of positive living and HIV/AIDS. Image: Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga.

Their art remains somewhat misunderstood; their market limited. But regardless of all this, Rwandan contemporary artists happily gather in Kigali’s busiest neighbourhoods to see their visions materialise. Their stunning murals embody the idea that public art with a strong message can help in sharing information of great importance in a creative way – all  the while adding vitality to the cty landscape.


Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.

School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.