On April 1st, artist and poet Aurore Uwase Munyabera will present a large exhibition of her work called "Iwacu," meaning "home", at Kalamazoo's Black Arts & Cultural Center. The work reflects Munyabera's childhood as a survivor of horrific genocide in her native Rwanda. But now, through her art, Munyabera displays the beauty and nature of the country that she left more than two decades ago.
When you listen to Munyabera describe her childhood home in Rwanda, she makes it almost sound like a dream.
"I vaguely remember the house I grew up in. I just remember it was on top of a hill," she says. "There’s like a mountain in the background, and the city is literally at your feet. Because Rwanda is a lot of hills. So it was always beautiful. I just remember sitting in my backyard in the evening, and you could see the lights down below you. And it was like standing on stars."
Munyabera remembers nights in that backyard, singing traditional songs and cooking meals that she still says are better than anything in the states.
"So those are the memories I want to hold on to about Rwanda," she says.
Then she pauses, and continues: "Although there were a lot of bad memories. I remember seeing dead bodies in the streets. I remember seeing someone you thought was your neighbor trying to kill you."
"So it’s hard to separate it," she says. "But for me to move on from what happened, I have to keep that memory of the beautiful Rwanda. And it still is gorgeous. People send me pictures. It’s a beautiful country. So I can’t take that away from myself, I have to always hold on to that. And what happened -- it was just human nature at its worst."
That “human nature at its worst” was genocide -- the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans by their own government in 1994. Munyabera’s cousins and friends were murdered. But Munyabera herself, only eight years old, escaped to the United States with her family.
Over the past 20 years, she’s formed a life here. And yet something strange happened about two years ago. Munyabera was going through a particularly stressful time. As an outlet, she started to draw. She let her mind wander. And surprisingly, she ended up drawing the rolling hills of her original homeland.
"And I’m thinking subconsciously, my mind just keeps going to that," she says. "That's what wants to come out. I love colors, I love playing with them. But then when I start playing with them, this is what happens! I start drawing hills! I start drawing dancers!"
Munyabara says she never knowingly said to herself, I want to draw Rwanda. And yet her homeland flowed out of her.
"I guess it’s so deep in me," she says. "It has to come out some way."
Soon, she was drawing large watercolor paintings showing Rwandan women dancing, full of joy, in front of those gorgeous, rolling hills. Munyabera says it felt natural to draw the landscapes of her childhood.
She describes Rwanda as something like an estranged biological parent to her. She’s been away for twenty years, and she still is somewhat afraid of heading back. The country still isn’t safe, she says. And yet Munyabera still feels a connection with her home country.
"I haven’t been back since the genocide, and I remember vaguely leaving. Buildings were burnt out. There were bullet holes everywhere. I mean, it was a war zone," Munyabera says.
But then she adds: "But that memory is so faint to me, I think I've just let it go away and let this take over. Let the beauty take over."
Munyabera shows off one of her works that depicts this tension between the violence and the beauty. The left side is similar to much of her art, depicting Rwanda’s rolling hills.
“But then there’s this woman that looks like a blob of red," Munyabera says, pointing to a figure inside the painting.
"Which to me, I felt like represented the blood that was shed. Whether it was man, woman, child, it was people living their lives like normal. Living the dream. And then this horrible thing happens. Then there’s this inexplicable splash of, like, dark black. And then reddish colors."
"And I think that was a disruption of us living a normal life. Going through our day to day lives to this horrible thing happening. And then from there, what do you do? I feel like it’s something we’re still dealing with. We’re trying to get back to the beauty, and I think we’ve done a great job, but we need to make sure it never happens again.”
Munyabera adds that she doesn't know if her art will continue to so prominently feature Rwanda in the future. She's only been painting for two years, after all, and she says her art could very easily branch out to newer, more abstract forms.
But Munyabera hopes that by showing off the beauty of her home country right now, she can continue to educate those in the United States about her home country and help ensure the genocide doesn't happen again.
"Iwacu" will be on display on April 1st as part of Kalamazoo's Art Hop from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Black Arts & Cultural Center.