A sense of wonder at the giant okapi

Saturday November 4 2017

The okapi at a Kigali hotel, by Roa.

The okapi at a Kigali hotel, by Roa. PHOTO | KUREMA, KUREBA, KWIGA 

By FRANK WHALLEY
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Somewhere deep within the dense rainforest, gentle okapi browse in dappled light before slipping back into the shadows, leaving folklore rich in tales of an African unicorn.

The okapi, a relative of the giraffe yet with a rich brown body and legs striped like a zebra, is now found only on the slopes of the volcanic Virunga Massif, which straddles Rwanda and the eastern DRC, and while known in legend it is rarely seen.

Until now.

For an artist called Roa, who cultivates an air as mysterious as that of the elusive okapi, has painted one of them for all to see — 15 metres high on the end wall of a hotel in Kigali.

He did so as part of an animal awareness programme run by the NGO Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga (to create, to see, to learn) that encourages public art in Rwanda.

As part of the project, Roa, who delights in his anonymity, has also completed a series of other examples of local wildlife at the headquarters of one of the project’s sponsors, the Rwanda Development Board in Kinigi, stepping-off point to visit the mountain gorillas, where he also held a workshop for Rwandan artists about art, activism and conservation. Murals there included a gorilla, a rhino and a regal sunbird; all native to Rwanda.

The regal sunbird at Kinigi, Rwanda by Roa.

The regal sunbird at Kinigi, Rwanda by Roa. PHOTO | KUREMA, KUREBA, KWIGA

Now looking comfortably at home in Kigali, Roa has painted the okapi lifting its head as though reaching for a tasty titbit from a tree.

The hotel, in Nyarugenge district of the Rwandan capital, is named, with perfect synergy, the Okapi — an ideal spot, then, for our muralist-cum-conservation activist to get on with the job. To do so, Roa spent five days on the platform of a cherrypicker hired at $460 a day, moving around the wall with buckets of black paint and a household roller tied to a long pole.

The paint was imported from South Africa at a cost of $1,750, and the entire budget for the artist’s three-week visit to Rwanda from his home in Ghent, Belgium, was $9,300. To help mitigate the cost — and incidentally prove his exemplary commitment to the cause — Roa gave his own time and skills for free.

Judith Kaine, the director of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga who spent four months organising the event — all the logistics including, rather sweetly, obtaining formal planning permission (subversive graffiti artist Roa is not) — hailed it all as a huge success.

“Rwanda has a rich history of environmental conservation, and this collaboration is thought-provoking, unique, and creative,” she said.

And Ms Kaine added: “These murals will provoke conversations about the animals and awareness of them and hopefully of their value to us all.”

If you want to see Roa at work, Google him and check out one of his videos. He has completed maybe 1,000 murals around the world, nearly all of them in black and white.

Giant murals are a fascinating aspect of art. From Monet’s water lilies to the decoration of tower blocks and derelict buildings, I am amazed at the way the artists keep control over the proportions of their subjects while working on such an unreal scale.

Sculptors do it too. Not only those who work in monumental sizes (Michelangelo’s David being a prime example) but think of Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln who led the team that over 14 years blasted 18-metre likenesses of four US presidents out of the granite of Mount Rushmore, in the black hills of Dakota.

Such an achievement beggars belief.

Painters can square-up a hand-held sketch and work the wall metre by metre through matching squares, but I have never actually seen them do that. Most tend to work freehand, guided by instinct and experience. In Roa’s case he drew the okapi’s body with enormous, confident sweeps of paint and then, last of all, added the neck and head making them suit the size of the body.

It reminds me of a circus bandmaster I once interviewed. I asked him how with his back to the ring he ensured the horses danced in time to the music. He pointed to a large mirror angled overhead so he could follow the act, and told me, “I make the music dance to the horse.”

Roa’s mural is impressive not simply for its scale, but also for the way he maintained the tension of the drawing; not a slack line to be seen.

Over at the wildlife headquarters in Kinigi, his gorilla, much smaller at around three metres, was simply adequate, more cartoon than living creature, while his rhino’s head was strong and well realised and his regal sunbird was a winner… you can sense it fluffing its feathers and getting ready to flick out its tongue in search of nectar.

The quality of the artworks here exists to make a point; almost a circus trick, yet one that both advances the cause of conservation and gives us pleasure while also adding a sense of wonder to our lives.