By Elvis Katsana
Since 2002, the province of Ituri in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has experienced various rebellions by armed groups. Peace has nowbeen restored, but the victims and survivors seem to have been forgotten by aid agencies, so they have to take care of themselves. That requires entrepreneurship.
“When we speak of Ituri, people always refer to the commanders of the armed groups and the work of aid agencies. I talk about them differently in my art. As an artist, I beat the war before it even started”, says John Color. He’s a young Congolese painter from Bunia, the capital of Ituri Province.
John works in his own plastic art workshop. He makes all types of things, including portraits, landscapes, comic strips, picture boxes and drawings. He’s among the survivors of the rebellion by the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FLPC) and the Party for Unity and Safeguarding the Integrity of Congo (PUSIC). Several of his friends were forcibly recruited, while others joined voluntarily.
Saved from the horrible war through art
“I managed to escape all of that thanks to my art. I was already painting in 1994. The war arrived here, but I just kept on painting.” John is not the only one who realises that he can rely on no one else than himself. NGOs in the region, he says, are only interested in very vulnerable people, who they can use to raise awareness and get more funds from donors.
According to Serge le Grand Mabaluka, a deputy reporter at OCHA in Ituri, “our office coordinates all the humanitarian aid so that it reaches those in real need”. That’s the main policy of humanitarian organisations that finance local groups, which actually provide aid to local communities.
Exhibition of John Color’s work in his studio (Photo: Elvis Katsana/Justice Hub)
Making works of art is John’s only source of income, but his art is too expensive for most local people. “People are really interested in art, but they don’t have the means to purchase my works because they’re very expensive. So I try to lower the prices. My works cost between 5 and 100 euros each. It’s mostly foreigners who buy them.”
Forgotten or ignored victims?
Another artist in Ituri is Padjanga. He’s in his 40s and has a sad look in his eyes. In 2002, his relatives were shot dead and chopped up in pieces by the rebels, using machetes. It’s a tragic story he doesn’t want to recount. He has never received any assistance. It’s only his personal art work that provides him an income.
“To show my determination to be an artist, even during the war, I continued to work. The rebels liked why I did because I made paintings of their exploits, even though they were bad for the Congolese people. After that, I was picked up by the National Intelligence Service, which accused me of stirring up bad memories in the community, even though I was just doing my job.”
Helping each other
Today, John is just one example of how local people in Bunia and other villages in Ituri are trying to help each other. According to John, “here, aid workers, the local media and even worse the international media are not interested in local initiatives to increase people’s social and economic reintegration. Art doesn’t even get mentioned.”
Lead image: John Color at work (Photo: Elvis Katsana/Justice Hub)