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Self-taught artist now paints for the future



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As a child, Idi Basengo used to imagine the face of a mother he never saw and would draw it in the dust.

His mother died when he was an infant and he had never seen a photo of her. So the images he drew were purely from his imagination.

After several attempts, he came up with what he thought his had have looked like.

At the age of nine, his father too died, leaving him and his older brother to fend for themselves.

They moved in with one relative after another, finding no acceptance, a Basengo settled for a life on the streets.

Basengo’s art was nurtured by pain and longing. Living rough on the streets was tough on him, and to escape the harsh realities of his existence, he threw himself into artistic expression, drawing on every surface he came across — from paper to wet ground and dusty glass windows.

In his small way, the world around him was his canvas.

“I didn’t get the affection I needed as a child, so art was my refuge, a beautiful distraction throughout my childhood. The pain I went through helped me grow in character and imagination as an artist,” he explains.

Out of desperation, his brother joined the rebel group M23, that was then fighting the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Basengo at one time contemplated joining the rebels too, but an inner voice stopped him. Unfortunately, his brother got shot in the leg, and is now living with a disability.

Now aged 22, Basengo is seeing a future in his art, even though he says Rwanda doesn’t really has a market for art.

He got a career breakthrough when scouts from the Agahozo Shalom vocational secondary School — one of the schools that nurtures young talents in different fields — found him on the streets and were impressed by his talent. He was awarded a scholarship to study at the school.

Fine art is not on the school syllabus in Rwanda and only vocational schools like Agahozo offer classes to nurture artistic talent.

A mountain gorilla paint by Idi Basengo

A mountain gorilla paint by Idi Basengo. PHOTO | MOSES GAHIGI | NMG

Basengo knew from the onset that to establish himself as an artist in Rwanda, his work had to be versatile and unique.

One of his strengths is painting portraits, which he taught himself in his days of living on the street.

He recalls that on days when he suffered hunger pangs, he would secretly sketch strangers by the roadside and present them with the portraits much to their bewilderment.

The trick worked because most people would be so awed by his talent they would pay him for it. This is how he sustained himself.

Basengo works with pencil on paper, and also uses water and oil paints with paintbrush on canvas to paint portraits of respected world figures from Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and sports personalities like US basketball star LeBron James.

A portrait of Rwandan president Paul Kagame by

A portrait of Rwandan president Paul Kagame by Basengo. PHOTO | MOSES GAHIGI | NMG

He tells stories through colours, and this is his quintessential attribute as an artist.

He has also read up on Rwandan history and culture, and reimagined the Rwandan monarchs and brought them to life as superhero figures, closing the gap between the past and the present.

A painting of Rwanda’s last queen, Rosalie Gicanda, and a male monarch are hung on the central wall of the Envision Rwanda art collective, a house made up of different artists.

Portrait of the last queen of Rwanda, Rosalie

Portrait of the last queen of Rwanda, Rosalie Gicanda done in superhero tones. PHOTO | MOSES GAHIGI | NMG

Queen Gicanda died a dishonourable death at the age of 80 at the hands of genocidaires during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, at her modest home in Butare.

In an artistic attempt to restore her dignity, the talent of a young Rwandan man brought the beautiful queen back to life.

Without altering one of the remaining youthful images of the queen, Basengo enriched his painting with gold and green colours to mark the edges of her graceful face giving her a superhero look in her full traditional royal regalia.

Empowerment, love, hope, peace and restoration of dignity are of underlying themes in Basengo’s art, but he has also come up with his own unique style he calls Basengoism.

The Basengoism style is a blend of realism and abstract art.

Basengo calls his style, Basengoism, a blend of

Basengo calls his style, Basengoism, a blend of realism and the abstract. PHOTO | MOSES GAHIGI | NMG

The first look at the painting, all I could see was a cow-its purple horns sprouting out, but on a closer look I could see elephant tusks and a trunk in its coffee brown colour, before seeing a hippo permeating on the other side.

The images are veiled behind small boxes of potent blue, gold, maroon colours and other mixed shades that accentuate the painting, giving it a mellow splendour.

He uses acrylic paint, a regular brush, sawdust, a pencil for sketching, a canvas and wood glue.

He has already done one exhibition of his own, and one other a month ago with other artists under the same house.

His painting of a child wearing an astronaut costume is a depiction of the limitless world he wishes for every child-a world where every child is given a chance to grow up and be whatever they want to be.

A portrait of a child wearing an astranaults

A portrait of a child wearing an astranaults gear by Idi Basengo. PHOTO | MOSES GAHIGI | NMG

Later in his life, Basengo got to at least see one photo of his mother. When I ask him if he went on to replace the imaginary image with the new one, he tells me no.

“It didn’t replace it, I connect more with the mother in the image I drew many years ago, when I needed her.”

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