Courage Ablaze tells the story of the innocent women and children caught in the crossfire of annihilation in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Though the fires of adversity scorched their families, these fierce women are salvaging what’s left and starting over. Since first debuting at ArtPrize 2012, I completed twenty-five additional portraits and recorded several more Congolese stories.
From ArtPrize 2014 to several solo shows including the last exhibit at Michigan State University, Courage Ablaze acted as a catalyst to open hearts. Though the work told the stories of Congolese women half a world away, several American visitors confided their own rape stories. Courage Ablaze facilitated small steps towards healing as individuals shared their pain. I’m grateful for the opportunities to touch so many visitors with the untold story of DRC Congo.
A Tip of the Hat to My Congolese Friends
I would like to acknowledge the Congolese leaders who kindly supported Courage Ablaze throughout the last few years. Kizombo Kalumbula, a naturalized Congolese pastor and director of International Berean Ministry, joined me in several presentations by educating the audience on the reasons for the conflict and the complex history of the region. Le Clay, Congolese refugee singers from the Leon Lusamba family, helped humanize the statistics by singing Congolese songs in French, Lingala, and Swahili at our presentations. Florimond and Jeannette Kabanda from Congo International Ministries and Paul and Charlotte Mpindi with Mission French Africa have also supported the work. I would also like to thank the numerous Congolese models and storytellers for their courage and vulnerability in allowing their lives to be portrayed with paint brush and pen.
The Congolese women first captured my heart back in 2011. Since that time, I have been continually amazed at their strength and valor. A few months ago, I saw a video of a Congolese woman being reunited with her children after years of separation. The happy family laughed, hugged, and danced. But another woman near the end of the video caught my eye, a woman whom I happened to know. I’ll call her Nabito. Nabito was separated from her child years ago when rebel soldiers raided her Congolese home. In all probability, Nabito will likely never see her child again. Yet, in the video, she was laughing, hugging, and even dancing along with the other family as they celebrated their reunion. As I watched the video, Nabito’s gratuitous generosity moved me to tears.
The Congolese women, women like Nabito, have expanded my definition of courage. Their tremendous strength of character, their determination to survive, in spite of enormous loss, inspires me. These Congolese women have taught me new lessons on how to respond to adversity. Truly, these women and children are my heroes.
The Work Lives On
In June, Courage Ablaze joined the permanent collection at Bethany Refugee and Immigration Services where the art will continue to tell the story of the women and children of DRC Congo. Bethany has the resources to reach beyond my influence, as a culture care artist, for the Congolese people.
So the past five years of work with my Congolese friends reaches a transition. The journey has been difficult. It isn’t easy telling the stories of immense atrocities and pain. After loading the truck and watching the artwork leave my studio, I felt a sense of release. Deep satisfaction. Up to this point, I have done all I can do for the Congolese people. Perhaps, one day, I may highlight the courageous stories and artwork in a book—and maybe even travel to Africa. But for now, I pray that Courage Ablaze continues to ignite a fire of hope beyond anything I could ever imagine and that peace will ultimately prevail for these beautiful women and children of DRC Congo.