East Africa Art Biennale Kigali, Rwanda, 2018

Since the foundation of the Biennale in 2003 the exhibition took place in Tanzania. It is the first time that the exhibition has traveled through five African countries with the largest part taking place in Dar es Salaam in three different locations. I was especially fascinated by the engagement of the organisers. The exhibition was prepared for months, sponsors were recruited, venues had to be found, it would take contacts to prepare in each country and a driver with a van to get the artwork across the countries without customs troubles. Kiagho Kilonzo, the Executive Director of the East Africa Art Biennale Association, who organised the Biennale and his colleagues travelled through the East of Africa thousands of miles to realise the exhibition. The special character of the Biennale is that the exhibition is created for the local artists from the East African region.

A journey into the land of a thousand hills

My contribution to the East Africa Art Biennale were drawings made after a trip to southern Tanzania. The "Along the New Road" series is a collection of typical East African buildings commonly seen in rural areas. One of them is the area where the modernised road from Dar es Salaam to Moçambique is finally finished after a long construction period. In 2015 there was only one small ferry for a maximum of one truck on the border river Ruvuma. The road raises hopes that intra-African trade will become increasingly possible. New opportunities arise for the economy. The innovations also bring disadvantages. Today, people often live in small cottages or houses right on the street. They can not afford a move. The vibrations caused by the heavy trucks damage the simply built houses. The drawings thematic the African change. Just as in Dar es Salaam the old and often very beautiful buildings from the colonial era have to give way to new skyscrapers, in the countryside too, the buildings that shaped the country disappear bit by bit.

Also in Rwanda I found special buildings. I was again and again impressed by the shops along the streets with their roofs supported by columns. The roofs provided with ventilation slots for air circulation and insulation often looks as a second floor. At older buildings you can discover ornaments, you can find variations of columns, different capitals and staircase-like roof shapes that are sometimes colourful. Also the ventilation slots can be shaped individually. The main road of the university town Butare (Huye) seems like a movie backdrop. The shops built during the Belgian colonial period, some of them in the modernist style, are often empty. And also the Hotel Faucon, which was built before the Second World War and was the most luxurious hotel in the city, has fallen into a deep sleep

In Rwanda, I saw landscapes that I had in mind as a painter for a long time and some of which can already be found in some of my earlier paintings. To my astonishment, the landscape in the valleys and along the rivers often reminded me of Asian woodcuts and ink drawings. The farmers stand in the knee-deep water of their rice fields and the rivers are lined with countless bamboo bushes. I traveled by public bus, rode the motorbike taxi to remote areas and hiked. Rwanda is mostly a country with wide green hills with rectangular fields and scattered bushes and trees. The country is populous. In rural, remote areas you are accompanied by a crowd of curious and helpful children. When the busses rock along the winding roads and on mountain crests, breathtaking views open up into deep valleys and terraced fields stretching from the valley to the top of the hills. Every piece of land is used.

In the West of the country, on the border to Congo, there is Lake Kivu. The picked coasts and the many small islands remember on Skerries landscapes. In the evening the sun goes down blood-red behind the mountains of East Congo. It's hard to imagine that this region is one of the darkest areas of our time. Since decades a relentless war is going on for gold, diamonds and coltan. I have visited the tea plantations of Gisakura in the South West of the country on the edge of the cloud forest Nyungwe, the only surviving mountain rain jungle in Central Africa. Although I have never been to this area before, the tea plantations were almost familiar to me because of the photographies by Sebastião Salgado. Between the tea plantations you can find rests of the rain forest in which isolated groups of monkeys are to be found. The landscape appears most spectacular shortly after a rainstorm when the rainwater evaporates and fog rises. Probably you could spend weeks there and the landscape would always show a different face. The Nyungwe rain forest is the water source of Rwanda and at the same time the watershed of the region. Not only is there one of the Nile springs that David Livingstone has been looking for for so long, the Congo also has its source there. Hidden under giant ferns and the up to 90 meter high and 900 year old mahogany trees, springs spring, waterfalls gush and small streams wind.

I have remained in memory a meeting in the hills not far from Kibuye. There I met a family. They live on a tiny farm with two cattle, goats and some chickens. The farm is surrounded by fields on which different varieties of bananas, potatoes, manioc and beans grow. It is grown in the traditional floor cultivation. In the shadow of the banana trees, beans grow up on bamboo sticks and potatoes and cassava thrive in the soil. I was allowed to taste the harvest in a delicious stew. Of course you eat with your hands.

A few miles away, in the North of Lake Kivu close to the border of Congo lies the small village Nyundo. There you can find the only art school of the country. The school was founded in the 1950s by Belgian priests and was nationalised after the Independence. Painting, graphics, ceramics and sculpture is taught there. Until recently there was also a music department which is now in Muhanga. The school has a large campus on which the students live. If you climb the surrounding hills, you have in clear weather a wonderful view of the two volcanoes in the Congo, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo, located in the Virunga National Park.

In my short report I have especially mentioned the impressions that will influence my work. After the Tansania pictures I will develop paintings and drawings from my journey to Rwanda. Ifa's exhibition funding was not only an opportunity for me to participate in the exhibition, but it was also a substantial promotion of my artistic work.

Klaus Hartmann, Berlin, March 2018

The stay in Rwanda has been supported by an exhibition funding from Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, ifa. The Biennale was on view in Tansania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. © Klaus Hartmann, ifa Institut