Visit Kigali and you will likely visit the renowned Inema Arts Center, one of East Africa’s best known art galleries. Started by two brothers, the gallery includes the work of some of the greatest contemporary artists in Rwanda. At its core, Inema is about family and community. In fact, the gallery showcases the art of not only its two founders but also that of the other three brothers in the family. That’s right. Five brothers and all are artists. But they didn’t all start off as artists.
Growing up, Kenneth Nkusi didn’t like painting, favoring Math and Physics in high school in hopes of someday being a pilot. But when he went to university, aviation wasn’t an option. So instead, he chose architecture. His first assignment was with trees.
‘Why trees?’ But he started sketching and found that he loved it. Even when his classmates started working with computers and videos, he kept sketching and working with water colors during his architecture school.
“My thesis was to start an art center in the community. At one point I was sick for three months from stress. I just painted during that time and it became a therapy.”
After attending University, Kenneth’s father encouraged him to paint with his brothers, which worked well by that time because by then his old brothers had founded Inema art center.
“I would help them with sales on vacation, so my interest in art started rising.”
As he began working more at the gallery, he began experimenting with his painting. He wanted to work with texture. He tried working with wood sawdust but it was rigid.
“I wanted something more flexible and it made me think of coffee grinds. Because we have a café at Inema, we have a lot of waste of coffee grinds. The first time I threw them at the canvas, I knew it would be something because of how they dried with paint. Then I wondered what would happen if I had more colorful paint, so I started balancing the colors and grains. The whole process is mixing the grounds with acrylics and it makes a compacted liquid like glue.”
Kenneth has found that the life of the grounds – from coffee bean to grounds to waste to artistic form is a bit of a metaphor for life after the horrible genocide against Tutsi that his mother country experienced in 1994. People and the country have risen up to create an even more beautiful life.
When people think of Rwanda, they often think of coffee. But Rwanda is not just a coffee producer, and Kenneth’s art expresses that. His paintings suggest a continuum of life, with the textures representing not only the hills and valleys of Rwanda but the light shining through darkness.