When I met performance artist Ishimwa Muhimanyi in Kigali a few weeks ago, I immediately read the artistic genius in his eyes. He is multi-dimensional — concerned with psychology, writing, traveling and body language, among others. He is grateful for his privileges and feels that luck has played an important role in his life. Here’s Ishimwa’s story on owning your past and emotions, and being an artist with a capital “A.”
Ishimwa was born in Gisenyi in 1991. When his mother died in the Genocide Against the Tutsi, he was taken to Kigali to live with his uncle, aunt, and their children.
He remembers the environment he was growing up in and his relationship with his relatives as “the most psychologically stable situation for a child to be in after losing a mother.” It’s one of the many times during our conversation that Ishimwa emphasizes on how lucky he is, and how grateful for the love and care he has received throughout his life.
“Lack of gratitude makes people think that because of their own doing, they deserve to have a better life than someone else. For me, this is a privilege. I like to think that there’s nothing unique about my story, except my ability to reflect on my experiences and get the lessons out of them. I think that’s far more important than the experience itself,” he said.
In 2000, Ishimwa arrived in London to join his father, who had started the lengthy asylum process with his partner whom he had met during his studies in South Africa.
But Ishimwa’s mischievous and stubborn personality, which he partly attributes to British independent-mindedness, wasn’t in alignment with his father’s customs of obedience. So, in 2006, his father brought him and his cousin, who was also living in England, back to Rwanda. When they arrived at his grandmother’s town in Cyangugu where there was no electricity, running water, and no actual toilet, Ishimwa described that encounter as, “the worst thing that could have happened to me.”
He immediately brought into our conversation actress Helen Mirren’s memories from doing experimental theatre with Peter Brook.
“Brook was all about filling the empty space with your character, or whatever it was that you wanted to portray. I think this is what happened to me when I arrived in Cyangugu. I was stripped of everything and put in an empty space, which shaped my creative thinking in a way that it realigned my sense of purpose and interest in theatre and art in general.”
At the age of 16, Ishimwa returned to the UK, and two years later, he applied to Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance — an institution that is said to have marked the birth of British ballet.
“I was there bare feet, with loose shorts and a loose t-shirt when everybody had their tights and pointe shoes. I looked completely out of it. I didn’t fit the picture. However, even though I entered being clueless, I ended being one of the best in the classroom because I took it very seriously,” he remembered.
“But why a ballet school?” I asked.
“I think I craved the discipline. It is something that my dad appreciated that I never had. He is very linear and militant in his thinking like most men who have been through the war. So, I would impress him in my way while maintaining my dignity and interest through ballet. But mainly I saw ballet school as an opportunity to get away. I got a scholarship, which was giving me security and independence for at least three years.”
“So, you become a male, black ballet dancer in London,” I said provocatively.
“Ballet is an industry with racial disparities, so being black means you have to prove yourself ten times more. One of the reasons I have amicably divorced with ballet is because I am not competitive and I don’t like proving myself. It’s an industry where you have to impress your directors, your peers, and keep maintaining that interest in you. I find all that very limiting. Do I want to live my life trying to prove to people always?”
We both knew the answer, so he continued, “At the beginning, I was attracted to ballet due to my self-doubt. I thought that through dance I could prove that I was good enough, attractive enough, strong enough, fit enough. Dancers and performers have mastered the ways of appearing secure through body language but deep down inside, their inner landscape is very chaotic.”
We stayed on this topic a little bit longer, and touched on the debate around racial quotas.
“It’s difficult doing dance as a black person because you never know whether people are interested in you because you are black and dancing or because you are a good dancer. It’s great to be inclusive, but are you inclusive because this is the agenda?
Of course, the more diverse you are, the better. Anyone who is logical has to get behind the idea of inclusion, but the way it’s manifested, I think it’s a problem. If they have to fill a quota, the first thing they see when they look at you is that quota,” he said.
In terms of Ishimwa’s overall experience in education, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London has been the highlight.
He completed his Master’s in Performance Art and Design with a distinction. But most importantly, he learned how to collaborate with others, about the importance of understanding your privilege in each situation and using it to expose wrongdoing, as well as how the way you carry yourself determines how people treat you.
A trip to Rwanda in February to see his grandmother resulted in collaboration with Hope Azeda, the Artistic Director of Mashirika Theatre, and the team behind the Generation 25 project. The project is about children who were born after the genocide, but carry the trauma from their parents and relatives.
Ishimwa explained, “It is a project dear to my heart because I believe that if we want to make an impact across Africa, we have to start focusing on the youth.”
“I wanted to be part of this project because it introduces a new way of artistic thinking. You don’t have to cry, for people to know that you are sad; you don’t have to laugh, for people to know that you are happy. Through minimalism, which isn’t commonly appreciated in Africa, you can translate those emotions, without being too literal and depriving the observer of creating their interpretation of what they are seeing. My role in the project was to bring out a nuanced way of performing and observing — be empowered to own your history and emotions, but don’t tell viewers what they should be viewing.”
After his short stay in Rwanda, Ishimwa went back to the UK, and on the road again touring in Africa, Europe, and later this year in South America with director Tunde Jegede’s Emidy Project.
The show is based on the true story of Joseph Antonio Emidy, a slave from what used to be the Guinea area. Joseph was sold to an aristocratic family in Brazil for whom he was playing the Kora instrument (a cross between a violin and a harp) until a British captain saw him perform, and kidnapped him. Eventually, Joseph bought himself out of freedom and ended up in Cornwall where he married a Cornish woman, and became a composer and a violin teacher.
“Tunde reimagined the story through movement and music rather than just acting, which is usually how slavery stories are told. He wanted to cover the whole scope of the transatlantic journey from Guinea to Brazil, Portugal, and Cornwall through the landscape of music,” Ishimwa said.
“What does performance art mean to you?” I asked.
“Performance art is about doing things from scratch. For example, if you are going to bleed, it can’t be ketchup — it has to be real blood. Also, performances can be site-specific, outside of a theater or a gallery, and into the public sphere. But the thing that excites me the most about performance — and art in general — is the unplanned things that happen during performing; the accidents. I hold honesty as the utmost most important thing in art. When honesty comes through, people connect with whatever it is that you are telling.
But honesty isn’t a thing that comes naturally; it’s the result of a research,” he replied.
When I asked him whether he gets nervous on stage:
“People become nervous on stage when they are trying to please, and I am not a pleaser. I want to be liked, that’s my glitch. But I don’t want to please. If they like the show, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. If I fall on stage, it’s part of the show.”
Freelance writer, editor, and communications strategist for the non-profit, hospitality & travel sectors, Maria Iotova is driven by curiosity, emotional awareness, and an unfading sense of adventure. Since 2009 she has worked with international teams in England, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Mauritius, and Rwanda.
Photography courtesy of Chris Schwagga