Innocent Nkurunziza: From Rwanda with Love: New York

Installation Views

Innocent Nkurunziza: From Rwanda with Love

April 27 – June 30, 2023
Opening Reception: April 27, 6 – 8 pm

Ethan Cohen Gallery is pleased to announce From Rwanda with Love, Innocent Nkurunziza’s first solo exhibition in New York.


Innocent Nkurunziza is a leading African artist who has helped the world reimagine his country of Rwanda evolving away from tragedy to creativity - both through his own artworks and through his foundation in the capital Kigali teaching children (and adults) the healing powers of art, music and dance. He leads with his own example of creating artwork as a kind of ritualized healing process immersed in nature consciousness going back to the first imprints humans made on the earth.


It has been said of prehistoric cave or rock paintings that they are not mere representational acts of mimesis but visual incantations, acts of worship and expressionist invocations of the great creation. The earliest painters, whether they produced images of buffalo or simple hand-prints, did so as a kind of transubstantiation. They were channeling the mysterious universe. The artists were not separated from the images they daubed. So it is with the art practice of Innocent Nkurunziza, a Rwandan artist based in the capital of Kigali, whose family fled to Uganda for several decades to escape the genocides back home. In exile, Innocent watched enchanted as his grandmother handcrafted natural fabrics. He communed with tree spirits and heeded whispers in dark spaces that directed his intimations to art. He came back to Rwanda at age 11 a committed artist. Today, Innocent's sequence of stages to final expression are themselves a kind of ritual, what he calls 'slow art'. He forages for his materials on hillsides, harvests his own paints from nature, and for his canvas he uses tree bark which he first treats with the five elements, air, fire, earth, water and time – until it too, like paint, becomes a medium. He invests the process throughout with meditation and prayer steeped in the elements. By consecrating the process, Innocent produces works of sacred consciousness.


To adapt the famous line from the poet Yeats, you cannot isolate the dancer from the dance in Innocent's practice. He becomes continuous to the flow of nature, with art as the outcome. His polychrome teeming constellations of foot-prints on treated bark, what he calls 'immortal barkcloth' evoke humankind's first halting accelerating steps in the quest to cross the infinite void. Those are the first proofs of our existence. His hand-prints on bark, too, seemingly strip away all layers of our urbanized, consumerized, modern consciousness back to a time when our first ancestors felt the magic of manual sentience daubing palms and fingers on rocks and cave walls. From his boyhood of exile to age 15 when his mother died to the present, Innocent sought healing in the elements, escape, and redemption in immersing his senses with nature, regressing with veneration to life-giving sources. As Innocent regressed intensively to rediscover the earth-roots of being through art he progressed in his achievements. He built a community in Kigali with his brother Emmanuel around the now world-renowned Inema Arts Center, teaching art to youngsters, hosting exhibitions and performances, and heads of state who come to visit Rwanda. His work is collected in prominent collections and museums around the world.


Like the living skin of reptiles, Innocent's barkcloth backgrounds palpate the natural dyes he massages on like organic muds. Time-induced drying supplies the networks of contours and ridges that he exploits to inspire the direction his picturing should go. His works occupy the zone at the center and extremes of the continuum between sculpture and painting. His textured surfaces are like sculpted textiles, what Innocent calls “nature's bandages”. They can resemble randomized three-dimensional maps, suggest river-deltas, dried lava flows, cracked finger-prints, the hidden messages of nature's revenant patterns. His sculptures explore the confluent identities of bark and lava skin. The sculptures in the show imitate the process of volcanic flow as it bubbles, craters, and cools. The earth's stigmata, acted upon by aeons. Aging of planet and humans and minerals, the artist suggests, flows through us like a universalizing force. His urge to unite and embrace expands from his art to the cosmos, from his individual triumphs to the community he serves and heals.