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Finding Creative Freedom in Rwanda: a Conversation With Make-Up Artist Ivan Mugemanyi

Updated: May 2

Ivan Mugemanyi's journey from a makeup artist in Belgium to a flourishing creative in Rwanda stands as a shining testament to the rewards of embracing change. Fueled by a quest for creative freedom, Ivan was drawn to Kigali’s burgeoning creative scene and decided to make it his home. Through unwavering dedication, Ivan has not only found success, but also a sense of fulfilment and belonging in his new home. His story embodies the limitless possibilities that can be achieved when one follows their heart.

Portrait of Ivan Mugemanyi, captured inside his house that also serves as his studio -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

"I grew up with Vogue and Sex in the City," as Ivan affirms with a glint in his eye. I can't help but chuckle every time when faced with his unwavering statements and even-keeled demeanour. “I had always envisioned myself in the bustling cities of Paris, New York, or possibly London. Rwanda wasn't on my radar. However, things took an unexpected turn…”

I sprang the idea of creating a profile about him at the last minute. And when I say 'last minute', I mean it. I hit him up the day before, late at night, to come to my place in the hills of Rebero for a 9 am session. If you haven't had the chance to meet Ivan yet, let me fill you in. He's not afraid of early mornings on a Saturday, quite the opposite - he's always punctual and ready for anything. He showed up in all white, looking sharp, with this amazing flower-shaped earring that had these big, bold petals. It was quite the sight! But he looked a little disappointed with my laid-back attire at first, until he saw the camera pointing in his direction. I quickly cleared things up:

“I won't be in the frame. I'm simply highlighting your most memorable quotes. No need for me to be seen.”

We burst into laughter, making for an upbeat start to my day despite my typical schedule of back-to-back interviews that often go until midnight, which explained my casual attire. Despite my initial reservations, I had decided to interview Ivan who had been on my list of people to profile for a while. Our close friendship and shared experience of growing up in the West and later relocating to Rwanda as adults to pursue our creative careers made me apprehensive of my ability to do justice to his portrayal. However, Ivan's incisive take on creativity from the outset left no doubt in my mind that I had made the right choice to feature him.

“For me, creativity is the act of embracing our individuality and soul into everything we do, pushing boundaries, and using it as a means of self-expression and exploration”, he said. “It's like a reflection of our thoughts, fears and desires. But sometimes, I struggle with the term "creator" because we often tend to link it with originality. But I believe that creativity doesn't necessarily have to be original. As long as the creation is authentic and truly represents the creator, it can elevate something ordinary into something unique and extraordinary.”

Ivan Mugemanyi photographing a client in his backyard, whom he had also done the makeup for -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

The main difference in our paths could be that Ivan built a strong professional foundation before fully relocating here in 2020, while I made the decision to live here full-time in December 2014. Ivan started off offering makeup services on a seasonal basis and would travel back and forth between Belgium and Rwanda from 2015, coming to Rwanda during peak wedding season in July and August and again in December. This has often led me to comment to Ivan, "Perhaps that was the way to go - testing the market first, establishing a reputation, and then making the full-time move with a solid client base already in place." To which he would reply, "I did move in 2020 though, in the midst of the pandemic …” And I'd have to give him credit for that bravery. “But there's never a perfect time to take the leap” he'd continued. “I just really wanted to be here.'"

Portrait of Ivan Mugemanyi, captured inside his house that also serves as his studio -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

What I was may be less in the know about was his very beginnings. It is hard to believe there was a time where the fashion and beauty industry was an uncharted territory for Ivan. Ivan initially took a traditional academic route, earning a Master's degree in Translation. However, as he delved deeper into his profession, he realised that it was not his true calling. Despite trying various jobs, including banking and teaching Dutch, Ivan yearned to unleash his creative potential and break free from the monotony of a 9-to-5 job. His heart was drawn to the alluring world of beauty, which had captivated him a few years prior.

It all started at the age of 17, while hanging out with his cousins who were applying makeup before heading to the club. He saw an opportunity to assist them and potentially bring out their best looks. The results were impressive, and this quickly became a regular activity whenever they went clubbing. His interest in makeup soon drew the attention of his mother and aunts, who started seeking his help for special events and occasions. He eventually got advised to get classes to get trained. Working already as a stylist for photoshoots on the side, Ivan saw the potential in combining his two passions. This marked the beginning of his journey in the beauty industry, where he found his true calling. Eventually, makeup services took the forefront, as they were a more tangible offering compared to photo styling, even though he enjoyed both equally. Then later, getting hired by MAC cosmetics allowed him to strengthen his credibility and set his prices, breaking away from the trap that many creatives fall into at the start of their careers by working for free.

“Being creative often requires working for free initially to prove your worth and develop your skills. Building networks and showcasing your abilities is key. As your work quality improves and confidence grows, you can gradually increase your prices. It's a natural evolution in creative fields where budgets are usually tight.”

This statement really hit home for me. I've been there as a photographer, working for free without proper compensation or recognition. It takes a lot of effort and confidence building to stand up for yourself and make sure you're paid for your work.

Portrait of Ivan Mugemanyi was captured in his backyard -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

Later, Ivan crossed paths with Diane Ndamukunda, another talented makeup artist. Together, they founded Tamiim Beauty in 2015. One day, the same year, a friend told Ivan about the untapped potential of the makeup market in Rwanda, a place he had only visited twice as a child with his parents. Intrigued, Ivan and Diane took a trip to Rwanda in the summer of 2015, to explore the potential of the new market. Upon their arrival in Rwanda, they were greeted with open arms by Candy Basomingera, the co-founder of Haute Baso, who was actively working there at the time. Candy graciously introduced Ivan and Diane to everyone in the fashion industry, including designers and models. Her efforts paid off as Ivan and Diane quickly gained popularity and were in high demand for their services.

From that moment, over the next five years, Ivan started making numerous trips to Rwanda, never feeling the need to limit himself or conform to anyone else's expectations. He was finally able to fulfil his dream of creating without constraints, and each visit only deepened his love for what that space could offer him. The energy and creativity of the people he met left a profound impact on Ivan in a way he couldn't quite explain.

“I really fell in love with Rwanda. There was a palpable energy in the air that made me feel like something special was happening - not only with the people, but also in their creative spirit.”

Ivan Mugemanyi applying makeup on his client with skill and precision -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

In Belgium, Ivan felt limited by the label "black makeup artist." He felt the pressure to conform to diversity expectations, which weighed heavily on him as a minority. However, in Rwanda, he found a place where he could flourish and freely express himself. Through travelling to Rwanda, Ivan strengthened his bond with the country and unleashed his full potential in the beauty industry, combining his makeup skills with a growing interest in fashion photography. This led him to explore new creative territory, developing a keen eye for detail and composition. His newfound confidence and drive helped Ivan carve his own path in the industry and leave a lasting impact.

In the summer of 2016, a year after we first met, I was working as a videographer on a fashion shoot for Haute Baso, led by Candy Basomingera and her co-founder Linda Ndungutse. Ivan, who was serving as the makeup artist on the project, offered to take on the photography as well. As I recall that moment now, I feel as that detached camera operator that he was referring to, as Ivan was continually praising the models on our shoot - Zahra Naizi, Alexia Mupende, Fiona Muthoni, Toni Georgette, Rachel Neza, and Sissi Ngamije - referring to them as the new supermodels of their generation, in the same vein as the legendary supermodels Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and the likes. This experience laid the foundation for what he would pursue later on after settling in Rwanda full-time, where he confidently added another feather to his cap by incorporating fashion photography.

While Ivan was working between Belgium and Rwanda, he thought he could have the best of both worlds. However, the investment and funds needed to open a studio in Belgium proved to be a challenge. He couldn't abandon his loyal clients in Belgium, so he continued to make back and forth trips to keep them satisfied. But on the other hand, he also had a loyal client base in Rwanda that he wanted to satisfy too. However, as much as he loved his clients in Belgium, he couldn't ignore the fact that his heart was in this other place, in Rwanda. Every time he returned to Belgium, he felt a sense of emptiness and found it harder to tap into his creative side.

It was at the close of 2019 that Ivan had a realisation that his stay in Belgium was reaching its conclusion. He informed Diane of his decision to bring their joint venture to a close within 12 months. However, fate had other plans as shortly after, the world was thrown into chaos with the outbreak of the pandemic. The unpredictable and tumultuous situation brought about alternating periods of reopening and closure of Tamiim beauty salon. But eventually, Ivan left behind the familiarity of Brussels and embarked on this journey.

Ivan Mugemanyi's makeup palette with a diverse range of colours for different skin tones and moods -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

Today, Ivan Mugemanyi's light shines brightly in the creative scene of Kigali, showcasing his exceptional blend of makeup and fashion photography skills. Not only has he achieved success in Rwanda, but has also travelled extensively for his makeup craft. Since relocating to Rwanda, Ivan has put his talent on display on the global stage through his travels to Angola, Ghana, Uganda, RDC, and Europe, opening himself up to new people and creative avenues. Each trip has taken him to new and exciting places while allowing him to feel fulfilled, which is the most important thing to him. And despite all the travelling, Ivan continues to stay creative in everything he does, never losing sight of what truly drives him.

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