How do we break cycles of violence? Art helps us share painful personal stories and build empathy across cultural lines.
Serge Alain Nitegeka was born in 1983 in the African nation of Burundi. When he was eleven years old his homeland erupted into open conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, violence that devastated Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The two countries had been a single nation, Ruanda-Urundi, until 1962, and the longstanding animosity between peoples recognized no boundary.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. These were not the first assassinations in the region and the backlash was fierce. The Hutu led governments began to execute Tutsis and moderate Hutus in an attempt to secure peace by killing all possible dissenters. Those who did not perish began a shadow existence, unable to move back home or establish a future anywhere else because of the prejudice that dogged them and their lack of legal standing.
Nitegeka was one of these refugees, fleeing the genocide behind him and trying to eke out a life for himself. As he moved throughout Africa, he constantly had to bow to the conditions set for migrants in different countries, the catch-22 situations that meant he couldn’t relax anywhere. His journey to freedom would take a decade and leave scars and impressions on his internal landscape and imagination. He has found a way to express the darkness and pain of those years of wandering by making art.
Nitegeka, who now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes a living as an installation artist, combining sculpture, design, construction, painting and performance art. Most of his pieces feature beams of black wood arranged in such a way that they impede movement. Visitors must find their way through by stooping and stepping over and through obstacles. This is Nitegeka’s way of creating empathy, sharing the feelings he felt as a refugee, remembering a time when he constantly had to modify or retrace his movements in order to survive and hold on to his sanity and humanity.
Performance means that the body is ‘directed’: this installation directs you in a manner that prompts your body to rehearse and perform certain movements, puts you into my position. I’m sharing my story with you, and you’re completing it as a performer. The installation can be interpreted as a stage.
It is an obstacle course, intended to express the idea of liminality. It’s is as if I am saying, ‘That is not how you’re going to walk in here, THIS is how you have to walk here’. Avoiding the lengths of wood as one negotiates the space is like an enforced ritual: one’s movements are, to a large extent, broken up into a set of prescribed parts and paths: that is a ritual process.
–Serge Alain Nitegeka, Interview for Artthrob
You may read the entire interview here.
Nitegeka has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, numerous galleries in South Africa and the Armory Show and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. His work is featured in Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, an exhibition currently showing at The Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, exploring the impact of colonialism upon identity. This week he will be opening a new solo exhibition, Configuration in Black, at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia.
What a tremendous journey and what a brave and noble means of working through one’s past!
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