Emmanuel Nkuranga Lights Up Casa Romantica

Living Treasure. Image by Emmanuel Nkuranga/courtesy Casa Romantica Cultural Center & Gardens

Emmanuel Nkuranga was flying from his home in Kigali, Rwanda, to attend his solo show at San Clemente’s Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, but, as I mentioned in my preview, because of plane delays, he missed the March 20 opening reception. The self-taught artist’s thick, painterly works dazzle with a riot of color and intricate texture. So lively, they appear to vibrate against the white walls of the gallery.

Nkuranga created most of these mixed-media works for Casa Romantica. “I wanted to be sure [the paintings] captured my experience and love for California,” says Nkuranga. “The flow of life on the West Coast is textured and rich, and I was thrilled to have an opportunity to express those feelings on canvases bound for California.”

Nostalgia is embedded in the energetic application and disruption of paint as well as in the titles, such as Golden Memories of a particular San Francisco bridge. Detailed cityscapes Big Apple Memories and Excitement In Chicago (2016) provoke a desire for cities lived in or visited.

The Chicago buildings, including Sears Tower and the unmistakable diamond-topped high-rise, are rendered in wintry browns and golds, but blasting from their tops is a pastel sweep of that city’s dynamism. Along the bottom are a series of vertical patches repeating in green, red, purple and orange, the white scrapes into these face-shaped colors transforming them into masks.

California Love is a thrilling rendering of our state bear, majestic in size (66 inches by 49 inches) and price ($10,000), and will no doubt be snatched up.

Nkuranga brings this same devotion to subjects from his homeland, bestowing them with deceptively simple titles. Living Treasure is a portrait of four gorillas regarding the viewer, though a solitary shadow looms behind the two smaller ones. These are no zoo animals, but distinct creatures subject to human dangers. Floating designs in a primary red magically appear where color is added over texture, somehow taking focus from the magnificent faces. The smaller, more abstract Family Time (2017) is all adorableness, with a baby gorilla and two adults cuddled up; a kaleidoscope effect enlivens their eyes.

Handsomeness. Image by Emmanuel Nkuranga/courtesy Casa Romantica Cultural Center & Gardens

The rooster against an outlandish red in Handsomeness dwarfs the gorillas. It’s a swoon-worthy bird not cocked up by mansplaining arrogance; instead, he exudes charm from his standup tail of multitudinous feathers. “That’s one of my favorites,” says curator Berenika Schmitz. “He’s carefully placed; he traveled around that gallery to make sure he has full force.” Luckily, there’s a fainting sofa located nearby. With a price of $3,000, I don’t think Handsomeness is returning to Africa.

Two abstracts entranced me: Tenacity (2014) is darker in tone, with a wavy grid barely containing its big bang of swirling life. And the red, white and blue of Joyousness brings all the exquisite elements of Nkuranga’s work together: emotion, energy, color, place and technique. “The application of paint is so . . . I don’t know . . . juicy,” Schmitz says. Juicy indeed.

“Emmanuel was brought to my attention by a young couple: tech millennials from San Francisco who are originally from San Clemente,” explains Schmitz, who is also Casa Romantica’s executive director. “One of their companies had come across Emmanuel in Rwanda. . . . I looked at [his work], and thought, ‘This is amazing.’”

The rolled-up canvases arrived in three banged-up packages. Volunteers built frames to Nkuranga’s dimensions and expertly stretched the weighty works, too many to fit in the mansion’s gallery.

None of Nkuranga’s pieces from last September’s solo show “Analog Aerials” could be rolled for travel. He used discarded motherboards and other guts to create topographies, drone’s-eye landscapes of Rwanda and its capital city of Kigali. The aerials are wood, embellished with epoxy, resin, fiberglass and African fabric. “You’ll just have to come to Rwanda to see them,” says the artist, who earned a degree in computer science.

Just as his paintings do, Nkuranga emanates a spectacular optimism, especially when it comes to making lives better through art. In 2012, he and his brother and fellow artist Innocent Nkurunziza co-founded the Inema Art Center in Kigali. “Inema means a blessing, a talent, a gift in Swahili,” he told CNN Africa. Their aim was to use art making as a means of teaching life skills and ways to generate income. Fourteen artists at a time have residencies at the center, and their work is shown in its gallery. Poetry, music, DJs and storytellers all contribute their creativity at Inema Art Center, which has become the nexus of contemporary art in Rwanda.

Earlier, the brothers launched Art With a Mission, an initiative to get orphaned kids off the street; the children train and perform traditional Rwandan dance as well as make art, with proceeds from work sold going to school fees and other necessities. Nkurunziza also began a program to help women of limited means use their sewing and beading skills to create pieces sold in Inema’s gift shop.

The goal to turn creativity into income has been a smashing success, with about 100 people making their livelihood through Inema Art Center’s plentiful endeavors.

“I am excited to spend time at Casa Romantica because the institution and my own organization are both cultural centers,” wrote Nkuranga, still en route from Africa as I write this. “We both seek to bring creativity and inspiration to large communities, so we share the same vision.”

Nkuranga, whose favorite artist is Basquiat, has an intense drive to create, to explore and to inspire his fellow artists and the world. “To me, life’s abundance is vibrant, and bold. I’m also inspired by the multitude of textures; they speak to me in a never-ending story. So I always feel like I have inspiration for art. The world’s abundance means I never run out of things to paint.”

Open Casa: Emmanuel Nkuranga” at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, (949) 498-2139; www.casaromantica.org. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Through April 15. Free with admission ($5).

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