In the Absence of Mother: The World of Willy Karekezi’s Art

Ngoie, visual artist Willy Karekezi’s first painting of 2019 is not just a powerful homage to his mother, but also the story of his own life. It is the story of a mother’s love that he never got to experience.

The painting is part of a collection the artist is putting together for his next solo exhibition, The Modern Exodus, in July. 

“This year, I want my art works to be more conceptual, and I will be demonstrating that in the upcoming exhibition. For the first time I will also be exhibiting sculptures.” 

Conceptual art is art in which the idea or concept presented by the artist is considered more important than the finished product. 

Apart from Ngoie, his other completed conceptual painting is titled The Campaign of the Century, a hard-hitting examination of humanity:

The Campaign of the Century

It depicts a lion riding with other wild animals on a motorcycle, with a baby baboon flying a banner with the inscription: “The world is better without humans”. 

“Since I was young, these words always came to my ear; ‘leave this world more beautiful than you found it’. I never thought about it deeply till recently when I started to ask myself if the human creation is making this world beautiful or if this thing we call civilization makes the world great again. Capitalism is in control and we are losing our identity.”

After posting the two pictures on his social media handles, the response Karekezi received was not only instantaneous and massive, but varied. While many praised him for the explosive paintings, others recounted similar experiences with their own mothers. 

But little did these people know the sum total of emotions that went into Karekezi’s artistic portrayal of his late mother. The title of the painting, Ngoie, is derived from her name. 

A mother he never knew:

Karekezi has very few recollections of his mother. His parents met in the DRC in the ‘90s while his father pursued his studies there. 

“As a child I was raised by my father. He escaped political instability in Rwanda and went to live in the DRC. While in school he met my mother, but unfortunately they didn’t have a chance to live together. I don’t have any recollections or memories of her as I grew up. I never saw her and didn’t experience her love.”

Willy Karekezi

Eventually, Karekezi and his father returned to Rwanda. 

“I always pestered my father to take me to my mother. However other people told me my mother was dead and I grew up knowing she was dead, but at a certain age someone came and told me my mum was alive and living in the DRC.” 

Between 2007 and 2009, Karekezi pestered his father to take him to his mother. 

The opportunity eventually came in 2009, when Karekezi travelled to Lubumbashi in Eastern DRC to meet his mother for the first time: 

It was a moving experience for me because I didn’t know my mother yet I was going to meet her. She knew I was going to visit so she sent me her picture.

When I disembarked from the plane, I saw about six women standing in wait but could not tell which of them was my mother. All were crying.

Finally I got to know her. I was welcomed so warmly it felt like I was coming home.” He spent a month, trying to bond with his mother.  

In January 2010, Karekezi returned to Rwanda, energized by the first time encounter with his mother. 

But five years later, in 2015, he received a devastating call from her. 

“She mentioned to me for the first time that she was going to die, and asked me to visit her before she died. That whole year she kept telling me about her death and asking me to visit her. But that time, I was struggling so badly with my own life and so could not afford to travel. That was also the time I was trying to establish myself as a visual artist and doing a lot of exhibitions so I had no way to be there by her side.’

At the end of 2015, he embarked on organizing an exhibition titled The Empty World, with a view to raising money to go visit his ailing mother. It was to be a joint exhibition with fellow local visual artist Tabaro Poupoute. 

The exhibition had been scheduled for February 2016.

“In January of that year I got a call that I thought was from my mum, but it was my sister and she said ‘your mum is dead, you need to be here.’ 

“When she died I was really sad and depressed because she was the only reason I was organizing the exhibition. It was just one week to go before the exhibition.”

It was upon travelling to the DRC for his mother’s burial that the inspiration to paint Ngoie hit him.  


“I went to a village called Sakania where she was born. There, I found this culture where when someone dies, they wait 40 days then organize a big celebration with lots of food as a way of showing the deceased respect and giving them a good send off. They show thankfulness for the friendship shared, what you had in common, and also ask for forgiveness for any transgressions against the deceased. They believe that when a person dies they go with a lot of blessings. The saddest part is that I didn’t have any relationship with my mother, and there I was listening to people talk about how my mother was so great. I decided that I would also keep her memory alive. Each January I do a painting in her memory.”

The painting depicts the face of a beautiful African woman, as opposed to his mother’s actual face, “because she’s so special to me, I didn’t want to expose her”.

It exudes feelings of being alive, with embellishments that include African prints, ear rings, chicken plumage, and a crown of colorful flowers on the head to symbolize growth. 

“It’s a dedication to all African mothers because I know there are many other people out there who don’t have their mothers,” he explains, adding that he listened to lots of Congolese music for inspiration while developing the painting. 

Shortly after this interview on Wednesday morning, Karekezi jetted out of the country to embark on a three-month tour of duty, with his first stop in Austria. He will also visit Germany, the UK, and Kosovo, before returning home in April. 

He travelled with the Ngoie painting, although he does not intend to sell it. Travelling to Europe, he says, was inspired by his travels to neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and the DRC last year.

“That trip was to meet other artists. I was surprised by what they were doing, and saw a lot of things to learn out there. I saw that Rwandan artists are not so well known out there. That gave me another perspective for my work. At the moment my focus is just to develop my career as an artist and to challenge myself in what I’m doing.”

At the end of the year, he has more engagements in West Africa –Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria:

“I never went to university, so this type of travel has become my university.”

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