“You see, I am an old man now and I grew up in this country and I know everything about this country. There is no need to tell you how art was before and how it came to develop because, at first, art had no value at all and people thought that one cannot survive on art. I am telling you this…Since I was young, I have been surviving on art.”
-Pascal Bushayija, Visual Artist, Nyamirambo, Kigali
Visual artist Pascal “Bush” Bushayija is known in Rwanda for his mixed-media paintings depicting Rwanda’s traditional culture. His style is easy to identify: simple compositions of faceless figures or cultural objects that are formed out of blocks of color and set within a bright background. Bushayija outlines his designs with pencil and fills in the shapes with paint and natural materials to create shades and tones. Bushayija typically uses sawdust from local trees that he collects from the floors of carpentry studios. Different tree types produce different colors. The tree types that Bushayija uses most often are called ribuyu, which can be found in the DRC, a multicolored umusave, which is from Rwanda, and a tree that is yellow in color from Uganda. Other artists in Rwanda imitate Bushayija’s style, but few have mastered his high-quality, mixed-media technique. Bushayija typically paints figures who are intertwined and appear to be caught in motion: they are dancing or drumming, holding babies, cradling pots, or carrying baskets on their heads. Bushayija chooses to make the figures faceless so that his works can be a general representation of Rwanda’s traditional culture. He also jokes that the anonymity keeps people from claiming to be in the painting and him from getting mixed up in lawsuits.
Bushayija was born in Gisenyi, Rwanda in 1957 and started making art in primary school when the only visual art that existed in Rwanda was imigongo, the cow dung paintings. Bushaijya’s parents and teachers did not value art and punished him when they saw him drawing, which was all the time, so Bushayija began to draw in secret. Bushayija’s drawings helped him to concentrate on what he was learning in school. He did well and was promoted to advanced classes. His love for art grew stronger.
When he finished primary school, he found out that there was a secondary school for art not too far from his home. Ecole d’art Nyundo in Gisenyi was, and still is, the only art school in Rwanda. One day, Bushayija visited the school and, without telling his parents, interviewed with the teachers so that he could be admitted to the school and study there. He passed the interview and then had to figure out how he would pay for the school fees. Bushayija’s father was a doctor and wanted his son to be a doctor too. With the help of his uncle, Bushayija convinced his father to let him go to the school and pay the fees. To show his parents that art was good for him, he started paying his own school fees after his third year of school. He did this with the money that he made from selling his artwork and by helping the school with projects commissioned by the government and big companies. Pascal was proud to pay his own school fees and to buy and wear expensive clothes and shoes that even his dad could not afford to buy at the time.
After graduating high school, Pascal worked at a tea factory nearby to the school, making advertisements. He did this for four years and was then asked by the directors to return to the art school as a teacher. He worked at the school for 11 years and taught six subjects in the arts.The other teachers were mainly European and the directors hired artists and experts from abroad to visit the school so that the teachers and students could continue to learn new skills and not fall behind. In his fifth year of teaching, he encouraged the school directors to admit girls into the school. He taught up until the 1994 genocide, during which the school was looted and closed down temporarily.
In 1996, Bushayija moved from Gisenyi to Kigali and wanted to figure out a way to work as an independent artist. He began organizing exhibits with the other few artists who were working in Kigali at the time, including fellow Rwandese artist Epaphrodite Binamungu. Most of his clients today are Rwandan, which is unusual because in Rwanda most of the art buyers are expatriates, foreigners, and tourists. Bushayija says that Rwandan clients buy his work as gifts for weddings and other social functions.
Bushayija is one of Rwanda’s older artists and is well-respected for paving the way for the younger generation of artists. Bushayija continues to visit the art school near his hometown as a guest teacher and to mentor youth. His works can be found in many Rwandan homes, government buildings, the National Art Gallery of Rwanda, and, perhaps most notably, in Bourbon Coffee shops in Kigali, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. He works out of his studio at his home in Nyamirambo, a lively neighborhood in the city of Kigali.