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Flourishing in an Evolving Landscape of the Arts: a Conversation With Art Curator Nelson Niyakire

Updated: May 2

Inspired by the flourishing creative scene in the region, Nelson Niyakire feels a renewed sense of energy from witnessing its evolution. As an art curator, he is tasked with a critical mission: to propose striking visual narratives through carefully selected artworks. Nelson's vision is to promote culture and creativity throughout the region, encouraging artists to explore their potential and share their talents with a wider audience. Nelson aspires to build solid structures to safeguard the artistic creations of the region and prevent the loss of its valuable legacy. Dedicated to championing culture and creativity as essential components for sustainable regional growth, Nelson, as an art curator, is focused on promoting these values and amplifying the voices of local artists.

Portrait of Nelson Niyakire, captured in Rebero -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

"Art is not a choice, but a calling that reveals itself to us.", as Nelson Niyakire puts it, with a smile. His background in fine arts from the School of Fine Arts in Marseille prepared him for a career in art curation in Kigali, where he discovered the rich artistic potential of curation as a fully-fledged practice for bringing visually striking narratives to life. Through his work, Nelson creates exhibitions that engage and captivate viewers, drawing on his artistic training and his passion for curating immersive and compelling visual stories.

"Creating, for an artist", he continues, "involves tapping into their emotions to give life to meaningful works that allow others to connect with themselves and the world."

Following my invitation, Nelson came to visit me and captivated me with his story about his journey. I found myself fully immersed in his story. Despite a recorder malfunction that caused us to lose the first few hours, we still spent around four hours together. The recording glitch allowed us to chat, and even after it was resolved, we continued our conversation for an extra two hours. Speaking with him reaffirmed my commitment to meeting creatives and artists in Kigali, where there is a rich tapestry of expressions to explore and share.

Nelson's passion for curation was ignited by his experiences in France, where he discovered the power of exhibition arrangement, with paintings arranged by colour and theme so carefully that the removal of a single piece could transform the entire narrative. Now based in Rwanda, he has chosen to use his talent as a curator to serve the creativity of the region.

"There are many artists who wonder what an exhibition curator actually does," he shares with a grin. "One might think it's simply hanging paintings on the wall. However, it's not just that! In reality, a curator brings these narratives to life by crafting exhibitions that create a dialogue between each piece and the viewer."

Indeed, Nelson goes far beyond simply hanging paintings on the wall. He takes a hands-on approach to exhibition curation, be it by moving, repositioning, or even laying out the artworks on the floor, to create the most impactful exhibition possible. With a keen eye for detail and a thorough understanding of the art form, he seamlessly weaves together every element of the exhibition to provide visitors with an immersive and engaging cultural experience, from selecting photographers and their works to writing accompanying texts, coordinating the setup and installation of the exhibition, and communicating with the public. Last December, I had the chance to witness Nelson working on an exhibition. Shortly after the recording of this interview, he invited me to participate in the "What Do You See?" exhibition, co-commissioned with Vivaldi Ngenzi from the Rwanda Art Museum, showcasing the work of women photographers. Participating in this exhibition was a rewarding experience for me as a photographer, but it also allowed me to realise the importance of an outside perspective in giving meaning to my work.

With his experience, Nelson creates Art of Niyakire, a company specialising in artistic curation. As a firm advocate for culture, he strongly believes that a well-conceived cultural policy can have a significant impact on a country's economic development. To achieve this, Nelson works closely with local artists to showcase their work and promote the creativity of the region on a national and international scale. His goal is to promote recognition of local talent while stimulating economic growth in the region through cultural promotion. Drawing on his expertise and interest in art, he is convinced that culture can play a key role in the sustainable development of the region.

Portrait of Nelson Niyakire, captured in Rebero -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

The Early Days of Nelson's Artistic Pursuits

From a young age, Nelson has always had a passion for drawing, constantly exploring shapes and colours. However, it wasn't until his teenage years that his passion transformed into a true calling. When he attended an exhibition by the Maoni collective of artists in Bujumbura, he was deeply inspired by their work and decided to join them. After several attempts, Nelson finally succeeded in meeting a key member of the collective, which allowed him to join the organisation and showcase his work to the public.

Despite his growing success, one day Nelson receives a scathing critique that rattles his confidence. Instead of letting himself be discouraged, he decides to turn this criticism into an opportunity for growth. He then creates a series of drawings entitled "Tribunes Imaginaires," in which he demonstrates his technical mastery and creativity. Since that day, Nelson has continued to explore new paths and push the limits of his creativity.

A Long Journey to The Fine Arts of Marseille

In 2014, Nelson held an exhibition in Bujumbura, which was a resounding success and caught the eye of the director of the French Institute. The director encouraged him to apply for a cultural scholarship to study in France, and Nelson chose Marseille for its sunny atmosphere and proximity to the water, which reminded him of his home country and allowed him to continue to be inspired and explore new forms of art.

However, the scholarship selection process involved several stages, including written tests, drawings, and an interview with a jury. This was an entirely new experience for Nelson, and he was shaken by the severity of the criticisms made by the judges. Some students even left in tears. During his interview with the jury, a professor, who had not lifted his head once during the first 15 minutes and was fixated on his tablet, suddenly asked him, "Do you think you're intelligent?" before immediately returning to his tablet without waiting for an answer. Nelson felt disarmed and did not know what to say.

Nelson and his friend had applied together, but unfortunately, they were not selected, leaving Nelson in a state of deep disappointment and uncertainty about his future. As Burundi was plunged into a political crisis, Nelson's loved ones advised him to stay in France. However, that option was not feasible as their absence would have nullified the cultural scholarship policy. In order not to deprive future generations of artists of this opportunity, Nelson decided to return to Burundi with his friend. Despite the chaotic situation in the country, Nelson refused to be discouraged and began exploring new opportunities. Strangely enough, three days after his return to Burundi, he received an email from the school stating that they had made a mistake in the competition results and offering him a place to study there.

At that point in the story, Nelson was unaware that the professor who had questioned his intelligence would be the one to persuade the school's director to accept them. The professor had argued that their participation in a competition thousands of kilometres away deserved the opportunity to continue their studies at the school. Thankfully, everything worked out in the end: after three years of studying, Nelson successfully earned his degree in Fine Arts.

Establishing Cultural Creative Labs To Foster Artistic Potential

The political situation in Burundi was unstable, but Nelson remained undeterred and made the decision to relocate to Rwanda, a destination that he recognised as a true hub for investment and artistic creation.

In November 2018, Nelson was welcomed by the Rwanda Art Initiative (RAI), which offered him the opportunity to organise an exhibition in the city's cultural space. With enthusiasm, Nelson accepted and co-curated the exhibition with Natacha Muziramakenga, who introduced him to places and artists he had never imagined knowing. Inspired by this experience, Nelson persuaded Kevin Beaulier, whom he had met in Burundi before moving to Kigali, to settle in Rwanda and create Maison Beaulier. Together, they established their own cultural laboratory to study, share, and promote the culture of the region.

Safeguarding Contemporary Art in Rwanda

As time has passed, Nelson's reflections have grown and evolved. His current focus is on safeguarding artistic creations and implementing the necessary structures to achieve this goal. He believes that successful marketing of artworks requires strong and well-adapted infrastructure. However, competition is tough with cities such as Marrakech, Cairo, Dakar, and Johannesburg, which have already established renowned sales and promotion structures.

Currently, activists in Africa are fighting for the restitution of artworks looted during or after the colonial period. However, according to Nelson, it is crucial to also focus on current artistic creations, which are often discarded, redrawn over, or even burned. Nelson knows many exceptional artists who struggle to sell their works. These artists are sometimes forced to draw over or even destroy their works due to a lack of means to purchase new supports. Nelson does not want all works to be bought or for the sale of Rwandan artworks to be prohibited. However, he believes that it is important to acquire at least a small percentage of these works to build their artistic heritage. He is convinced that if this protection is not put in place now, soon there will be nothing left of this heritage.

To address this issue, Nelson is involved in the creation of the first contemporary art fund in Rwanda, in collaboration with Ambassador Masozera, the General Directorate of Rwandan Heritage, and the Rwanda Art Museum in Kanombe. The fund will store and preserve all collected artworks in a carefully selected storage location. The goal is not just to accumulate works, but to create a coherent collection through thoughtful curation of the reserves. The fund members will work to determine the relevance and future usefulness of each artwork.

Portrait of Nelson Niyakire, captured in Rebero -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

For Nelson, the creation of the contemporary art fund is a crucial act in preserving and promoting Rwandan culture. The fund aims to store and preserve local artworks, as well as promote their importance and relevance for future generations. Therefore, the project represents a real opportunity to bring culture to life, by highlighting local artists and their work, and by contributing to the shining of Rwanda. This will hopefully contribute to the emergence of a rich and flourishing society, proud of its history and culture.

Moreover, Nelson believes that creativity and culture can empower future generations in rediscovering their history and shaping the region's future. He is convinced that artists have the power to participate in the development of a new perception of Rwanda's history and culture, as well as the region as a whole, including Burundi, which holds a special place in Nelson's heart. By giving a place to local artists of all backgrounds, the contemporary art fund promotes the expression of this vision by encouraging the creation of new narratives and perspectives on the region's history and culture.

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