Anna Labarias

3rd Year, Art Education Major

Creating Art with Youth in Rwanda

While the children often smiled and sometimes cried on my shoulder, I knew I could never grasp the true extent of their reality. Several of the seemingly well-adjusted youths were failing in school, and I wondered how much of it was due to the challenges of being a teenager, and how much was related to the difficult events they had experienced during the war.

This research paper is a reflection on my experience as a volunteer art educator in Rwanda. I would like to interpret my experience alongside similar initiatives by other researchers.  Through awareness of other perspectives and art, I hope to improve my ability to create healing bridges with children, in an intercultural context.  According to art therapist Valerie Chu (2010), who worked for five summers in a community centre in Rwanda, cultural differences can be at once an advantage and a challenge, since definitions of sickness, healing, and art can vary from one culture to another. Chu (2010) explains, «…Rwandans often believe that “the tears of a man flow within,” or that deeply felt emotions should remain inside a person rather than be expressed out-ward (p.6).

It is because of these cultural differences that I would like to describe the research that I did before and after visiting Rwanda, in order to understand which art activities were best suited for a Rwandan youth population. My Rwandan experience began with a presentation by a fellow student in my art education course at Concordia University. The presentation documented her experience with a photo literacy project in Haiti, citing several international examples of where this type of project had been successful, including one orphanage in Rwanda. I contacted that same orphanage about volunteering as an art educator, and was accepted to visit over the summer. Between January and July in 2012, I gathered as many ideas for art projects as possible to interest Rwandan youth while considering several challenges.  The cultural differences, such as taboos against displaying emotion, sharp gender divisions, emotional scars from the 1994 war, the backlash of colonization, were all factors, as was my being a white woman working within a population of primarily black males. Other challenges included the less than humane treatment of the youth at the orphanage combined with the imminent closure of the orphanage.

Thankfully, my previous experience as a volunteer art educator in Benin in 2006 prepared me for difficult situations and fuelled my enthusiasm for intercultural research. In Romeo Dallaires’ book Shake Hands with the Devil (2005), he cites the important role of education to help prevent violence (p.511). In my research, I sought out to find art education projects in Africa and around the world. One example is Sonya Clark’s Beaded Prayer Project (2003), where hundreds of participants wrote a wish, sewed it to a piece of cloth and included it in a collective mural which travelled throughout Africa, North America and Europe. Another impressive work is the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, bringing together street kids, local prison inmates, and rehabilitation centre patients to paint hundreds of murals around the city, allotting a space for silenced people to express themselves ( I was also struck by the Montreal Life Stories Project which “is an oral history project exploring Montrealers’ experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement.” (2012,

Following this, I found out about Brooklyn Museums’ exhibit “Question Bridge: Black Males” created by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The artists used video to invite black men of all ages and origins to respond to each-others questions about identity and history, standing in for an absent father or male role model (Brooklyn Museum, 2012). Also through the Brooklyn Museum, I learned about artist Kehinde Wiley’s painting Officer of the Hussars (2007). It depicts a contemporary black man riding a rearing white horse in the pose taken by Napoleon Bonaparte from Jacques Louis David’s famous series of portraits (1801-05). These works for me seemed to be a good starting point for a discussion with Rwandan youth regarding identity and history. To further expand my research I attended a workshop on natural indigo dyeing, a traditional African technique, with Montreal artist Valerie Walker. Finally, I volunteered for the musical ethnodrama “Our World” at the Concordia Centre for the Arts and Human Development in order to gain some experience in working with adults.

Upon my arrival at the orphanage in Rwanda, I shared with the youth some of my art, and asked for their help in translating poems by Maya Angelou, Mohammed Ali, and Tupac Shakur into the local language of Kinyarwanda. These were displayed in the orphanage dining room. I presented them with art by non-western artists including “Essaouira, Artistes Singuliers”(2002), a catalogue of paintings by self-taught artists from Tunisia, books with symbolic images including tapestries by Jean Lurçat, as well as videos from the Cirque du Soleil. Creating emotional outlets, I gave them my pair of boxing gloves and helped them build a punching ball out of rice bags and sand, set up a volleyball net, and took the youths trekking in the hills, caves and in the nearby countryside. I regularly participated in peeling potatoes, washing dishes, and doing laundry – activities they had never seen a white person take on. These activities helped us to get to know each other and created a sense of trust. Through this participation I was able to convey that I wasn’t there as an authority figure, but as a facilitator.

The activities were organized collectively, incorporating suggestions by the youths and myself. I made some mistakes when trying to communicate my ideas with the group, but luckily the youths helped me to correct them. My strategy was to create open communication, drawing on Freire’s idea of “dialogical education” (p. 56-57), which fit well within Rwandan community-based culture (Freire, 2005). I rarely took pictures of the children’s work myself, but instead lent them my camera to photograph what was most meaningful to them. Many of the projects that I proposed including natural indigo tie dying, reproducing Sonya Clark’s Beaded Prayer Project, did not at all speak to the youths and were unsuccessful. The girls were not interested in making the tiny dolls, which I so enjoyed making myself, and time constraints and age appropriate complexities did not allow us to finish the two meter high, giant puppet project.

However, there were some pleasant surprises. Life drawing appealed to youths of all ages and beadwork was a success among the boys. Despite my lack of knowledge in video software, the youths were also able to create a video about their life experiences using my computer. Another project was an idea that came from one of the boys: to interview the original manager of the orphanage, who had acted as a father and a male role model to the youths until his retirement. Using my computer, the youths visited him and created a video of their interview. The youths set up a collective screening of the video for everyone in the community to see. As many of the children had not seen their own father in years, it provided an important example of a male role model.  

Still life with eggs and money

Figure 1. Two boys from the orphanage painting the mural (2012)

Perhaps the most effective of the activities was the painting of a mural. One of the boys came up with a design which really spoke to all: a mural representing Roz Carr, the much-loved founder of the orphanage, surrounded by all the youths. Visually, the result was beautiful. However we encountered some problems in participation. Certain dynamics within the youths came to light with a group of artistically talented boys taking over, keeping other children, especially the girls, at bay. As a response, we expanded the mural to four walls instead of one, in order to allow for greater participation. The social dynamics were again raised into question when some of the youths asked me to paint the figure of the founder, over the work of less artistically skilled youths. Through some discussion we agreed none of the work would be erased.

Due to the critical environment of the youths within the orphanage, none of the participants wanted to risk painting the central figure, in fear of being made fun of. I gave in to their requests and undertook this task and bore the brunt of the jokes until I achieved a result that was satisfactory to most. In retrospect, I could have resisted their request and insisted that the children complete the mural themselves. However, after two months of living in Rwanda under difficult conditions, I did not wish to engage in any form of confrontation.

Professor Irene Gericke, in the Department of Creative Arts Therapy at Concordia University, suggested to me that the ideal closure for the mural activity would have been to have the youth photograph themselves with the mural. It turned out that in fact the youths on their own had taken hundreds of pictures of each other with the mural. I realized that photography allowed those who did not participate in the painting of the mural to become part of the work. This project turned out to have particular poignant significance to them since the orphanage is in the process of closing and the youths who have grown up together are being separated, many to live on their own in difficult conditions. To celebrate the completion of the mural, we organized a pasta dinner, the youths favourite meal.

While the youths often smiled and sometimes cried on my shoulder, I knew I could never grasp the true extent of their reality. Several of the seemingly well-adjusted youths were failing in school, and I wondered how much of it was due to the challenges of being a teenager, and how much was related to the difficult events they had experienced during the war. According to National Institute for Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves re-experiencing symptoms related to the event, avoiding reminders of the event, and being constantly “on edge” (NIMH, 2012, p.2). Caroline Beauregard, an art therapist whose research interests are strongly influenced by humanitarian experience in Rwanda, including trauma and art therapy interventions with children who have been exposed to armed conflict; states that PTSD is a western definition therefore this problem can be named and expressed differently in other cultures. In Uganda it is defined as “Cen,” meaning “an angry presence”; while in Liberia it is defined as “kazumbi,” meaning evil spirits (Beauregard, 2010, p. 31-32).

In addition, Beauregard states that children may not express their trouble in the same ways as adults, but rather in the form of play (Beauregard, 2010, p.32).  Each culture has a different approach to healing. In traditional Kenya for example, women collectively help each other to rebuild their houses. This involves mural painting, which allows for a creative healing experience (Akinyi Wadende, 2011, p. 66). In Uganda, traditional healers are involved in today’s rehabilitation programs for child soldiers (Beauregard, 2010, p. 27).

From a western perspective, the stages toward healing include telling one’s story, mourning, commemorating, and creating new connections. Definitions of art and healing are different from one country to another. Art therapy is helpful when a culture does not allow for verbal expression of difficult experiences (Chu, 2010, p. 5). “In some cultures, expressing emotion is a sign of immaturity and thus a child might prefer copying a drawing than creating his own design” (Malchiodi, as cited by Beauregard, 2010, p. 35). However, when proposing art activities, it is necessary to use symbols that are specific to a person’s culture (Beauregard, 2010 p. 34) so that the individual may get in touch with the difficult aspects of their experience. Through art, a person can reflect on experiences otherwise too painful to be expressed. By externalizing experience through art, one can gain a sense of control over once overwhelming experiences. When an individual gains mastery over experiences by putting them into a story, they can regain a sense of self and open up to life again (Chu, 2010, p. 9).

According to Blum (2010), important aspects of an art therapist’s work in an intercultural environment include getting to know and building trust within the community (Blum, 2010 p. 13). An art therapist may then focus on the child’s “islands of competence” (Blum, 2010 p. 13). Based on her work with street kids in Rwanda, Beauregard states the need to provide children with a stable, constant environment, to discuss rules and confidentiality, and to include opening and closure rituals, such as dancing and singing in art activities. Beauregard also suggests alternating projects that touch on past trauma with projects focused on resilience (Beauregard, 2010, p. 38), including collective activities such as a mandala activity which combines storytelling and art.

To further my research I have found other works that perpetuate the theme of collective healing. In her thesis on the treatment of war-affected children, Michelle Bobich (2011, p.105) recognizes that art therapy, especially music and dance, can play a role in recovery. Gabrielle Daoust (2010), who studied the role of community theatre in Rwanda, states that by allowing the expression of criticism towards the government and other sources of injustice, theatre can help heal not only the individual, but also the community (p. 65). Kay Heley (2010), in her M.A. thesis from the Centre for Global and International Studies at Kansas University, explains the grounding experience provided by drumming among youths growing up in post-war Liberia (p. 77). Professor Annette Blum at the Ontario School of Art and Design describes the impact of making memory boxes, body maps, and embroidered memory cloths for women affected by poverty and AIDS in South Africa (2010, p. 13).

Although art therapy is considered to be a western idea, healing through arts has existed for a long time among many cultures through chanting, dance, music, theatre, body arts, among others. In addition, I believe in the words of postcolonial theorist Edward Said (1978), who asserted that we do not exist in opposition to the ‘other’ but in continuity, and that this ‘other’ is not a passive recipient of western influences, but a person who is active, creative and critical (p. 118). Western society does not have the monopoly on healing through art and is not so powerful that its ideologies supersede or erase other ways of seeing the world.

While there seems to be many creative approaches to help youths, every youth is unique and there is no magic recipe to address one single problem. Everyone follows a different path and no amount of knowledge can replace having sensitivity to other people’s needs. I believe that self-awareness as described by Freire (2005, p. 90-91) is essential, and that being willing to dive into someone’s world is key to realizing our similarities rather than our differences. This includes labelling a person with their disease, instead of recognizing them as a human being. By understanding the steps towards recovery, one can design activities adapted to a specific culture while addressing the needs of the individual, without being confined to a rigid program.

In conclusion, I have learned that storytelling is an important aspect of recovery and that incorporating digital technology, which was very popular among Rwandan youths, into art activities is essential. Developing a positive notion of ‘the other’, building of a sense of self and defining one’s identity is important for all but especially for those recovering from an experience of war. My research has led to one dominant conclusion that can be summed up in the following quote by Orbinski, the founder of Doctors without Borders (as quoted in Kim Ping Yim, 2012):

“Too often, we see the suffering of others as somehow separate from ourselves; and we chose to take pity on those who suffer, and sometimes we can choose to take action to relieve that suffering. However, when one literally sees the other is equal in worth and dignity, when one literally sees them as one sees oneself, then compassion lead not to pity but to solidarity… (p.48)”


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