Home ARTS & THEATER An Art Festival in Rwanda Converses with the Past and Celebrates Our Shared Present

An Art Festival in Rwanda Converses with the Past and Celebrates Our Shared Present



Azeda’s words in this interview shine a new light onto a particularly striking piece called this is one of them, a collaboration between France and Rwanda, performed on the last night of the festival. On stage, Dorothy Munyaneza slowly brings out a giant insect wing into a space littered with the disembodied pieces of the insect. She chants into a microphone in Kinyarwanda. Her voice, vibrating and fading in and out, expertly mimicks a fly getting caught in your ear. Dressed in a black cloak with a glimmer of blue, she dances with sporadic and impulsive movements across the stage.

Munyaneza dared to create a piece of art about a fly. But performed on a stage next to the resting place of people who were called “cockroaches” by those seeking to dehumanize them, the piece inevitably converses with this history. Because everything you try to bring becomes a part of that, as Azeda reminds us. An artist can make art about flowers or butterflies, but that art will inevitably illude to their lived experience or positionality.

She shows her audiences how, in the absence of all these lost lives, we invent stories about what could have been.

Kiki’s The Book of Life had three performances during the festival, co-produced by Toronto-based Volcano Productions and Kiki’s own Huye-based Woman Cultural Centre. In an intimate venue, normally used as an art gallery, the audience sat on risers covered with cushions. Kiki told a fable about a group of animals trying to steal a piece of the sun, intertwined with letters written by victims and perpetrators of the genocide and her own personal narrative.

A chorus of women drummers called Ingoma Nysha sing, dance, and assist Kiki’s storytelling. In speaking with director Ross Manson after the performance, I discovered that women drumming, and especially women performing a warrior dance as these women did, is very subversive and was found quite offensive by some Rwandan men. This is certainly no accident. Kiki stated in the talkback following the show that in many aspects of her life she feels powerless, especially as a woman, but as an artist she feels powerful. The drumming of Ingoma Nysha was an epic display of women’s power. (This is true in spite of the fact that, given Kigali’s regulations about noise pollution, the women in this performance were only allowed to drum at about 20 percent of their normal intensity. As a non-African audience member, honestly, I might not have known if they had not told us.)

The show honors not just the lives lost in the genocide, but all the human potential lost. Kiki asks the audience to help her invent a grandfather for herself because she did not know hers. She wonders if the man that would have loved her was murdered as she looks at pictures of men at the memorial left behind by their families. She shows her audiences how, in the absence of all these lost lives, we invent stories about what could have been. Sometimes those invented stories are the most real thing we have left of people.

In the talkback, Kiki spoke of the difficulty of getting the people she worked with to write the letters she had collected. She stressed the importance of writing these personal narratives, not just telling them. The history of the genocide, and of Africa by and large, is told by the West—by scholars and academics outside the continent. In a literary culture, written narratives dominate our understanding of historic events because writing and publication comes with an air of authority. But in an oral tradition, which Kiki notes is the tradition of Rwanda, you own your narrative, and it continues to be malleable in whatever way you need it to be. Once it is written, published, and shared, it is unchangeable, and others can use it for their own purposes. This is, in fact, a concern the letter writers had. They wanted to know what she was going to do with their stories.

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