Djamal Ntagara ’s long cherished dreams of having his own art center is going to be finally fulfilled by the grand opening of Kanyaburanga Art Center on March 31. But his is a bittersweet journey; a journey of pain and joy, failure and success, and a solid determination to find meaning in his life that has finally made him reach this height.
Born in 1990 in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo where his parents had sought refuge during the pre-genocide tortuous period, Ntagara’s family came back to Rwanda in 1994 immediately after the country was liberated from the genocidal regime by the Rwanda Patriotic Front forces.
But what he remembers as a young boy is the family indigence soon after coming from DRC, something that had a profound influence with his struggles through education.
“Living in Congo as refugees totally rendered my parents dirt-poor and we came back to Rwanda with nothing but our bare skins. Life was too hard but the fact that we were back in our own country gave us pride to overcome the early difficulties,” says Ntagara.
He was enrolled at Remera Catholic for his primary education and Ntagara remembers with nostalgia that this is the place he discovered his love for art and talent as an artist.
He says that when he was in primary Two, he already loved to draw sketches, edit pictures from newspapers by adding other features like a beard to them, or cut a photo of a star and make a picture book.
However, this early prodigy in art also had an influence on his education. “It’s at this formative stage in my life that I discovered I had an emotional distance with education. Basically speaking, I came to realize that formal education was not my thing,” he reveals.
But at least, he adds that when he reached P4, he could help his teachers sketch images on the chalkboard and other learning resource materials and later he could even help them mark art exams by students.
Ntagara says he started having real problems in his education odyssey after completing P5. “I felt I was wasting time in the education system since I wanted to look into ways through which I could help my big family who were still suffering from poverty. And I felt that the only way I could do this was through things that I had discovered on my own and not those that were forced into my head through education,” he says.
This line of thinking made him to drop out of school after completing his P5. He tried to convince his father to take him straight to Senior One but his old man adamantly refused the suggestion.
However, after about two years at home, he again asked his father to take him to school. “My father acquiesced but suggested that since I had shown no interest in formal education, he would take me to a school to do Islamic studies,” he says.
He was later to join Al Hidaya Islamic Institute but dropped out after one year since, as he says, he saw no future in doing Islamic studies. Ntagara was back to his parent’s house with nothing to do but thinking how to be resourceful with his life. After one year, he was taken to King David Secondary School in Kigali to study English but he again dropped out after only one year.
The same fate followed him when he was taken to Bugembe Institute in Uganda — he quit after a year for the same reasons.
His recalcitrance for learning made him to do stints as fast food seller, work at his mother’s small coffee shop and for his acquaintance as a bus conductor and to try his luck as a rapper and songwriter.
“I formed my own band and we recorded three songs though lack of sponsorship and material support made this venture to collapse like house of cards,” he says.
At the end of 2014, Ntagara received an invitation to join the defunct Uburanga Art Studio in Kimihurura to teach children how to make jewellery.
“Though I had only raw knowledge in this craft, I jumped onto this opportunity and it also made me to raise money where I bought painting materials,” he says.
As one of Uburanga resident artists, Ntagara says this is where he harnessed his artistic talent and when Uburanga collapsed at the end of 2016, he went back to his father’s house to start painting in his small room
The idea to start Kaanyaburanga Art Center was born here. “Kaanyaburanga means a small attractive place in Kinyarwanda and when my friends visited my art sanctuary, they used to be amazed at its attractiveness,” he adds.
Some of Ntagara’s most conspicuous paintings showcase urban life. A 200x70cm untitled acrylic on canvas depicts a colourful but congested city which he says is a reflection of how Kigali is going to become in 2081, and its transformation through several years.
“On one hand, this painting shows the great developmental strides transforming our city. On the other hand, it shows the killing of nature since with congested buildings come destruction of trees and natural habitat of animals like birds,” he says.
By Joseph Ondiek