Petr and Talking Through Art has been on my radar for years because of their beautiful baskets and the amazing cause they’ve taken up. Have a read of this excellent interview (thanks to Hazel Cox, who is currently supporting Talking Through Art as their Education and Business Development Manager and put this interview together) and then you can find out more about Talking Through Art on their website and Facebook page.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am Petr Kočnar, a young professional originally from the Czech Republic. I have a background in art and design and previously worked in London as a retail manager, and in Nairobi, running educational programs for children on eco-farming. In 2015, I founded Talking Through Art in Rwanda.
What brought you to Rwanda?
Even as a young child, I was fascinated by Africa and constantly read books about different African countries to learn more. In 2007 I visited Ghana with my mother and was mesmerised by this part of West Africa and its people and culture. This experience captured my heart and imagination and I knew one day I had to return!
As a young adult, I returned to Africa, but this time to East Africa. Initially I travelled through Kenya, and eventually settled in Nairobi where I started a farm. Through this project, I ran educational programs and invited students from local schools to visit and learn about the different animals we kept and eco-farming methods.
These farm visits provided a wonderful opportunity for young children living in the urban heart of Nairobi to enjoy a more rural way of living and a connection with nature that they would not otherwise experience in the city, within their everyday lives. I ran the farm for three years before returning to the Czech Republic.
Before long, I felt a pull back to East Africa! This time I decided to come to Rwanda, especially as I wanted to develop my French. In 2015 I travelled to Kigali and I stayed with a host family for the first month. I really enjoyed this initial introduction to Rwandan life and culture.
What inspired you to start Talking Through Art?
During my first month in Rwanda, I spent time exploring the local area where I was staying and kept noticing destitute people with disabilities. Since I had previous work experience with disabled people and a background in art and interior design, I decided to approach them and organize an art therapy program.
The Art therapy sessions were really well attended by the people I had met! As we spent time together and I got to know them, I was really saddened to learn that people in Rwanda with disabilities can feel that nobody takes them seriously. This further motivated me to do what I could to improve the outcomes of these people.
After the initial success of my art therapy program, I officially established Talking Through Art as an NGO in February 2015 with the dream of helping more disabled people gain new skills, confidence, and a place in the job market.
What has Talking Through Art achieved so far?
Our main activity is vocational training in traditional basket weaving and craft making. When women join us, they receive comprehensive vocational training in the art of basket making and they are provided with raw materials to begin their work.
Upon completion of the baskets, the women are paid an above-average market price for each product. Completed items are sold locally, in our gallery and in boutiques in Rwanda and internationally. The remaining profit is used to support the running of the organization, to purchase raw materials, and for member transport fees.
We also provide art therapy, English classes, family planning, yoga and other life skill classes, all in an effort to build the confidence of our members, strengthen their self-esteem, and help them become independent and active participants of the Rwandan society. I believe that disability is not an inability, and I am always striving towards equal opportunities for handicapped people.
What inspires your unique and beautiful designs at Talking Through Art?
We gather inspiration from many sources! It is important to us that our designs are always unique, individual and of the very highest quality! This really sets our products aside from the baskets you typically find in Rwanda. Our designs have been inspired by paintings and artwork, ceramics and natur You can see that our baskets include many designs from the natural world and local plants and wildlife, such as blooming flowers, ocean waves, zebra stripes, birds, trees etc.
We love collaborations and are always happy to talk to customers to create a unique custom design for their home or business.
Where can people buy your products?
We have many partners and collaborations throughout Rwanda where our baskets are sold. First of all, we hope you will visit our gallery in Gikondo, where you can meet our producers, share a coffee and try your hand at basket weaving.
Talking Through Art’s baskets also stocked at the Gift Shop (Marriott Hotel), The Shop (Kacyiru), The Hope Shop (Remera), Touch of Rwanda boutique at Lavana restaurant (Kimihurura), 4 Blooms (Kimihurura), Yambi Guesthouse (Gikondo), Cafe Crema (Musanze), and the Imigongo Art Cafe (Kayonza). Our place mats and coasters also decorate the dining tables at Magashi Camp in Akagera.
How can I get involved with Talking Through Art?
We’d love to meet you and visitors are always welcome to pass by to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, take a look in our beautiful gift shop, meet our members and learn how to make baskets. We offer walking tours around the area of Gikondo and we are a key destination on an increasing number of Kigali tours. We also welcome school and youth groups.
Our local walking tours are designed to give you a relaxed and authentic experience exploring the secret places of Gikondo. You will be immersed in the Rwandan culture and given the opportunity to interact with the local community.
If you are able to spare the time, we would love to welcome you as a volunteer. There are many ways that you can get involved and whether your background is in teaching, fundraising, social media or something else, we’d love to chat with you about opportunities for you to work with us.
What is next for Talking Through Art?
Talking Through Art now has over 50 members in Rwanda, in Kigali and in Muhanga. We have also been able to identify sponsors to support children of our beneficiaries to attend schools, but hope to be able to expand this program.
Our vision for the year of 2020 is to support over 200 children with parents with disabilities. We believe that education is a key to a better life and a bigger chance for these kids to support their parents when they grow up.
It is so incredibly rewarding to see the happiness and confidence of our members growing every day and being part of such as warm, welcoming and supportive community.
We plan to continue to grow as an NGO and gain more members and we are at the early stages of establishing a new group of women in Rwamagana. We would love, one day, to be able to purchase our own property to ensure the long-term stability of Talking Through Art. However, we continue to seek financial support in order to be able to serve more women with disabilities and their children.
Finally, on a more personal note, what have been some of your special experiences in Rwanda?
I love travel and photography, so exploring Rwanda has been a wonderful experience for me! I recently climbed Muhabura Volcano, on the Rwanda/Uganda border, part of the Virunga Mountains. It was really hard work, at 4127 metres high, but definitely worth it!