August 2, 2021

in Kigali, a “Garden of memory” to “restore a presence to the missing”

Visual artist and photographer of South African origin, Bruce Clarke has been working for twenty years on artistic and memorial projects related to the Tutsi genocide which killed nearly a million people in the spring of 1994 in Rwanda. At the request of the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG), which aims to prevent and fight against genocidal ideology, the British artist notably participated in the development of the “Garden of memory”, which extends on 100 hectares in the district of Kicukiro, south of Kigali. A few hundred meters away, nearly 2,000 Tutsi who had taken refuge in the Official Technical School (ETO) Don Bosco were killed on April 11, 1994 after the withdrawal of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda ( Minuar).

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In 2014, Bruce Clarke painted “Standing Men”, figures depicting sketched silhouettes of men, women and children. Represented in Rwanda on the places of commemoration but also of massacres, these “Standing men” have also been exhibited in museums or on building facades in Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, France, Benin …

During Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Kigali which sealed the diplomatic reconciliation between France and Rwanda, Thursday, May 27, Bruce Clarke gave the last brushstrokes to these frescoes erected in a corner of the “Garden of memory” of the Rwandan capital. At a height of 12 meters, they seem to contemplate the city.

How to associate the scale and the monstrosity of a genocide with an artistic approach?

A genocide is not representable, so we have to go through symbols or other means to talk about what is unspeakable. The “standing men” are the symbols of the dignity of human beings. They stand up like witnesses to an atrocious story. As an artist, my intention is to restore a presence to the missing and to restore the individuality of the victims.

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I am not trying to represent hope with these “Standing Men”, except perhaps by showing that the fact of having survived the genocide is a form of hope for humanity. A genocide is the total elimination of a people. The “standing men” are the affirmation in the public space that the genocidal project has failed.

When were you interested in Rwanda?

In the early 1990s, when I was fighting in the anti-apartheid movements, there were warning signs of a genocide in the making in Rwanda. Rwandan friends told me that a system of state racism was ruling the country. I found it quite similar to apartheid, although I struggled to understand it at first because in Rwanda all the inhabitants are black, which was obviously not the case in South Africa.

The plastic artist Bruce Clarke is working on a fresco of

Thanks to a network of associations including the International Federation of Human Rights, I tried to alert public opinion in France where I lived. But civil society has little weight against the cogs of history. The genocide was well and truly launched. The press did not really mobilize until the end of the genocide [à partir de juin 1994], when it turned into a humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps. I went there for the first time at the end of August.

What memories do you keep of it?

As a photographer, I arrived in Rwanda for a collective of associations. It was very complicated. For two and a half weeks, I traveled across the country. I got around by hitchhiking thanks to NGO vehicles, the only ones in circulation. The Rwandans had nothing left. No electricity, no drinking water: it was chaos.

I had prepared to see mountains of corpses but did not see any. For public health reasons, the dead had already been buried by the RPF [le Front patriotique Rwandais, un mouvement politico-militaire composé de Tutsi qui a mis fin au génocide] or citizens. But sometimes we saw pieces of shredded bodies in city gardens or on Gisenyi beach, on the shores of Lake Kivu. There were bombed houses and you could smell the smell of death that hovered everywhere. Around the big cities, there were mines and you had to be very careful. I was also told that I should beware of stray dogs, as they are used to eating human flesh.

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What surprised me a lot was that there were small signs of life. Slowly, it came back. In the Gisenyi market, you could only find potatoes because they had not been harvested during the massacres. In the streets, the survivors strolled with haggard eyes. Kids, many of them orphans, hung around hoping to find food. Westerners who worked in NGOs drank red wine and had barbecues. This shift shocked me.

At the same time, apartheid was ending in South Africa with the general elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela …

The question then was whether to continue the movement against apartheid. In my opinion, this fight was no longer necessary after the democratic elections, but I wanted to keep my militant cap.

In 1996, the Rwandan authorities contacted me because they were planning to create places of memory and meditation. It seemed complicated to me, because my art deals with contemporary history but with a certain distance. In the case of the Tutsi genocide, we are in a contemporary history but the tragedy is very close, palpable.

What was the “Garden of Memory” project?

I imagined it as a place of meditation in which people would come to walk. The idea that the families of the victims could come and symbolically place a stone with the name of a person written on it was born gradually. It corresponds to the beginning of an act of mourning, in a tragedy in which thousands of bodies have never been found. Psychoanalysts have comforted me in this intuition, this form of symbolic repair, even if the project has evolved over the years.

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The fact of being able to deposit a million stones, that is to say one per victim since 1994, has been preserved in a landscape and symbolic ensemble. It includes a stone monument, a garden, a memory forest, a meditation corridor, a marsh and an amphitheater. Everything has a particular value. Botanists planted trees and flowers which have an important meaning in Rwandan culture but also a link with the genocide. There is, for example, a swamp, because it is in the reeds that survivors were able to hide and escape the killers who were pursuing them. There is also an acacia, a symbol of resilience and resistance in Rwanda.

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