Uwiduhaye Rigobert receives me at Agati Library, Muhoza Sector, Musanze District, a library which he co-founded. It is at twilight. I find him putting final touches to a commissioned portrait of a woman. His hands splashed with strands of paint, we place two stools in the garden that surrounds the library, sit and chat about his career in painting.
Aged 24, Uwiduhaye Rigobert is a tall and calm young man with a well-built body. His art falling between abstract and realism, he is a semi-abstract painter. Living near the Volcanoes National Park, the subject matter of most of his pieces is animals for reasons of conservationism.
On conservation, he says, he paints images that elicit love for the wild. “It is not to mean that I will go and tell the poacher to not kill animals. But, at least, if I paint a deer, in a colorful way, he will love it and won’t kill it again.”
Uwiduhaye has always been devoted to art. He says, in nursery school, when classes used to be mainly about drawing and singing, he found himself leaning on drawing than singing. He remembers always being eager to volunteer to draw for his primary school teachers whenever they needed to draw something on the blackboard.
His love for drawing surged during his Ordinary Level studies. While applying for an Advanced Level combination of studies, he was faced with a dilemma between going for the arts or moto vehicle mechanics, which was his other area of interest proven by the fact that most of his early drawings were of vehicles. He even dreamt of owning his own automotive industry.
He applied for both combinations, putting École d’Art De Nyundo first and Moto Vehicle Mechanics (MVM) second. Before he could know which one he had been offered, his interest in pursuing art studies dropped.
“I started thinking, ‘I am already used to drawing. It is no use going for something I already know. Why not go for motor vehicle mechanics?’” he says.
Despite his now disinterest in the arts, when the results were released, he had been offered to study at École d’Arts. He resisted and struggled to find a school of motor vehicle mechanics.
He moved to Kigali, at Rwanda Education Board, asking for a change of schools which request was declined. He eventually joined École d’Art De Nyundo. He went there, still feeling disappointed and uninterested, only to reach there and be blown away by what he found in the school.
At the school were paintings that he could not believe had been drawn by the students. He realized that his knowledge of art was wanting and the school had a lot to offer.
His born-again character made him befriend all students in the school who seemed to be the best at painting, including Giraneza Tony, Iradukunda Patient, Ishimwe Daddy, Rwema Sam, and Toussaint.
Those taught him a lot of styles he did not know, but the lack of flexibility in the schedule of the boarding school made him afraid that it could chip away at his artistic spirit.
That same academic year, he and his friend Mugisha Paul, another rising painter in Kigali, decided to opt out of the boarding. In the school’s history, it was the first time students would be allowed to study while staying out of school.
The principal at first had refused, but the two students insisted until when the principal said, “You will keep paying the same school fees as boarding students.”
“And, I will only accept it if each one’s parents accept that they will take risks of whichever problem might happen to you,” the principal added.
After uneasily convincing their parents that it would be for their own good, the two students finally opted out of the boarding.
At a place where they stayed, they could use the internet to access and learn from extra content than that they got in the class. They would download tutorials by a landscape painter called Kevin Hill from YouTube and learn from them.
While staying outside the school, people started to employ them so much that Uwiduhaye made enough money to pay his rent, meals and school fees for himself. That was still in his first academic year at the school!
In 2017, after completing high school, the two had a dream to make an arts center. They based themselves in Ruhengeri, working from Uwiduhaye’s home.
They started giving free artworks as gifts to people, especially tourists. Those tourists would go on to spread the word about their art among their friends, people who would later commission their work on good prices that allowed Uwiduhaye to buy enough equipment and other materials he needed for the trade.
He first learned what it is to do a solo exhibition in 2017. He then started planning on hosting his own. He went into discussions with hotels around Ruhengeri, most of which rejected him, causing him to give up.
In that same year, he reached out to Virunga Valley Academy (VVA), an American international school in Musanze that allowed him to exhibit during their annual festival. There, he sold all twelve paintings he took there and got five commissions for other paintings.
He credits Matt Miller, the director of the school, and his wife for helping him grow his communications skills and confidence.
In November 2018, his first solo exhibition was held at took Crema Coffee Shop, Musanze District, and he earned $1300 from it, a half of which he invested in the foundation of the Agati Library, an initiative of a group of six young adults who grew up and live in Musanze District, namely Karekezi R. Patience, Umuhuza Denyse, Munyabuhoro Prosper, Mukiza Aime, Isangwe Sabine, and Uwiduhaye.
With more than 3,500 books, the library has become a sanctuary for hundreds of kids.
His last solo exhibition took place again at the same place in January 2019 during which he met Kathy who asked for ten of his paintings to be exhibited in ‘Life in the Brush’, an exhibition which brings artists together in Kampala.
At some point, I ask him to show me one of his paintings of animals, and he quickly shows me seven pictures of different paintings. His paintings, colorful acrylics on canvas, are portraits of the animals’ faces. The paintings he shares with me show the animals as tender beings that invite friendliness and fun.
His art undeniably is conversational. One of the portraits of a giraffe, looks like a painting in which the painter had to first discuss with the muse different alternatives of her pose, a discussion which finally led to a masterpiece pose.
The giraffe is painted from a right-side view, and, with its mouth open, the giraffe looks happy and inviting the fun all his paintings invite.
In his calm voice, he says that apart from the individuals mentioned above, he receives no support from either the government or private sponsors.
He says, “Everything is on my own.”
Furthermore, he enthuses that art in Rwanda is gaining prominence.
“Nowadays, an ordinary man tells you that he bought red curtains and asks you which color he shall paint the walls, and that’s art. All people have gotten artistic minds. It is not like before when people would use things of completely different colors without trying to think how complementing colors can create beauty,” he says.
He currently lives off his painting business and plans to get his work positioned at a global stage and to found an art gallery to support exhibition of works by young artists.