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Street artists fight COVID-19 with art in Rwanda

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Street artists in Rwanda are painting the walls in bright colors with an important health message: to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Armed with paints and spray cans, every morning artist Jimmy Rolland decorates walls with his murals.

“My painting is one way we can stop COVID-19, showing one of the ways to stop COVID-19 by wearing a mask, and then staying true to yourself and staying strong,” he says.

Rolland is part of a collective called Kurema which uses art to engage the public and push for social change.

This is the first time the group has painted murals but Rolland already knows how to get public attention.

“This COVID-19 wants attention, you have to see it, so I am using strong colors to attract attention to my artwork, to attract attention to my message to show that people need to see what they should do,” he says.

Rolland’s work is one of nine street art murals that have so far appeared across Kigali.

“This painting is reminding me to wear a mask, it is so colorful you can’t continue walking and you turn to see it,” says local resident Moise Niyogakia.

“When you see it immediately you see this woman with a mask in attractive colors, so in your mind, you remember the mask to fight against COVID-19.”

There are 14 artists involved with Kurema.

The group is funded by the Rwandan government and the Israeli and German embassies.

“It is a way to come together conceptually to benefit and enjoy the value of our work in society and so we hope that these messages both have an education function but can also encourage and inspire people to keep going, to keep fighting against this fight and to work together to move past this stage,” says Judith Kaine, Founder Director of Kurema.

Artists submit proposals for street art projects around COVID-19, either with a public health and safety message, a message of community resilience and hope, or reflecting on the world they would like to emerge from this crisis.

“We believe that only one man cannot give the whole idea, so we discuss, we make decisions and then we make in practice what we have been talking about and also all details because we need to have a specific message to tell,” says artist Willy Karekezi.

Rwanda has recorded more than 4,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 18 deaths.

Despite this relatively low level of infections, the government has brought in strict measures to try and prevent the virus from spreading.

Big markets have been suspended and there are limited entry and exit to commuter buses in Kigali.

Fines of up to $20 are applicable for not wearing a face mask or wearing it incorrectly, and for breaching a 7 p.m. curfew

Local government figures show that between 27 and 29 August alone, 15,000 people were arrested for being out after curfew, and 4,000 for not wearing face masks.

“We hope that using artwork and helping spread the voice of artists and the messages of creative people in the society can help reach audiences with that message the behavior change and can inspire them to take care of themselves and to do the behavior changes that are necessary to protect everybody,” says Kaine.

After the COVID-19 crisis has passed the group will move on to creating street art about protecting the environment.

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