Bahimba Thaddee Macumi technically qualifies to be called a ‘refugee artist’. He’s certainly a refugee, a Rwandan teacher who didn’t want to be called up by the RPF to go fight the Interhamwe in the DRC in 2000. The trials he incurred between then and when he finally reached Kenya in 2001 were numerous and harrowing. But ultimately, they led Bahimba to make one critically important discovery about himself: it is that in truth he is actually an artist who also happens to be a refugee.
I met the man late in 2016 at Nairobi Racecourse where he stood out like a diamond in stony sea of ordinary rocks. We were attending one of those pre-Christmas craft sales which took about five minutes to navigate, only to find nothing of interest; that is, until I spotted Bahimba’s wooden carvings, furniture and goat-skin carpets. I stopped in my tracks when I saw his wood-relief ‘painting’ clearly patterned after Leonardo di Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, but carved in a thick rectangle of jacaranda wood and stained a deep, dark burgundy-brown. Besides its being a beautiful replica of the Leonardo’s painting (at least in its alignment of characters), there were a myriad of differences between Bahimba’s work and Leonardo’s not least of which being that the Renaissance artist’s iconic piece is a painting, while Bahimba’s is as much a sculpture as ‘painting’ which he’d carefully carved in wooden relief and so deeply that all the disciples could almost be mistaken for free-standing sculptures, so masterfully has the artist paid careful attention to the smallest detail, even to their toenails and sandals. The other major difference between Leonardo’s painting and Bahimba’s sculpted woodwork is that this African artist has carved his characters, making them all unmistakably African, including Jesus Christ.
His explicit decision to craft Christ and his crew undeniably African is one of the reasons I felt instantly attracted to the artist and his work. But then to hear that he had never sculpted or worked with chisels or carving knives before he’d come to Kenya make the man’s story all the more surprising.
Bahimba admitted he’d loved to draw from the time he was a child, and had even/often been enlisted by his Rwandese headmaster in primary school to illustrate teachers’ points on class blackboards.
It was either fate, divine guidance or coincidence that led Bahimba to the Kivuli Centre early in the new millennium where he fell in with a score of Rwandese and Burundese refugees, all of whom worked as wood carvers in Kivuli’s open-air workshops.
Actually, as he was in flight from his home in southern Rwanda, traveling overland on foot, by bus and even by boat, Bahimba made it to Tanzania to refugee camps near the Kenya border and it was there that he was advised to find friends living not far from Kivuli Centre.
What is amazing however is that once he met countrymen who were wood carvers, they spurred him on to join their ranks.
“They knew somehow that I was good at drawing,” said Bahimba who had actually taught art to children one of those Tanzanian camps. “So they told me since I knew how to draw, it was assured that I could carve as well.”
He took up their challenge, despite never having held a chisel or carving knife before. But he quickly got the hang of it, borrowed a bit of Jacaranda wood and one of the home-made jua kali carving knives, and picked up a plethora of skills as if by osmosis.
“Nobody really taught me how to care,” he said. “But the one bit of advice I got was never hold the knife with the blade facing my body; always carve away from yourself in case the blade slips and you could make a bloody mess of yourself.”
That was almost 11 years ago, and over time, Bahimba has become a highly skilled master carver. Visiting him at his Kivuli workshop on a day when all his workmates were attending a family funeral, I felt privileged to see the wide range of artistry that he’s created over the years.
His one challenge now is marketing since Bahimba hasn’t taken time to go out a sell himself or his art. His display at the Racecourse was one of his very first days to make the concerted effort to showcase and sell his own exceptional work.
Yet one can find him on Facebook as B.Thaddee.Macumi and he’s also on What’s App, so it’s quite likely that once his incredible story gets out Bahimba’s glorious genius will be recognized as belonging one of East Africa’s finest wood sculptors, a man just beginning to take off on a new and illustrious artistic journey.