Voted Top 100 at ArtPrize 2012
The Women and Children of Congo
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Mass rape is cheaper than bullets, and it creates more instability. The women feel defenseless; the men are rendered powerless. The goal of sexual violence is simple: Shame the women. Break the men. Destroy a nation.
To the estimated two million Congolese women who have been raped, Congo's Silent Heroes, I dedicate this work.
Courage Ablaze, Watercolor on paper, 66x44 inches
Toni's smile and quiet strength drew me to her. Although her native language was French, a few simple words bridged our lives, and the distance between a Congolese refugee and an American artist narrowed.
Before meeting Toni, I knew nothing of Congo except that it was a country located somewhere in Africa. Five minutes passed before I found this country on the world map hanging in my garage.
My life collided with these Congolese women at an event where their native dresses that were trimmed in cowry shells captivated my artistic eye. I didn't realize then that these new friendships would lead me on a path into the heart of Africa: a place unsafe to be a woman. Since 2011, I have worked with Toni and other Congolese refugees now living in West Michigan.
Though the flames of adversity blazed through each of their stories—leaving massive damage—these women are rising out of the ashes and rebuilding a new future for their families. The following Portraits of Courage reveal the fierce determination of these remarkable women.
Militant soldiers descended on Toni's village and killed her husband. Panicked, Toni grabbed her baby and ran. But in the confusion, her older daughter darted away. For seven years, Toni believed her missing daughter was dead. Recently, however, she learned that her daughter lives.
Trying to rebuild her life, Toni wields a will of steel forged in the unquenchable furnace of central Africa—a hallmark of a true woman of valor.
Virtue (image of child), Watercolor on paper, 26x40 inches, 2013
Valor, Watercolor on paper, 26x40 inches, 2013
Sophie and her husband heard gunshots while working in the forest. Suddenly, fifteen armed soldiers surrounded them. They raped Sophie. Then a soldier shot three bullets into her husband. Sophie cried out, “Why? Why?”
Although lines of pain trace Sophie's face, courage is etched in her soul—the kind of true courage that is hammered on the anvil of life's most horrifying circumstances.
Strength, Watercolor on paper, 44x33 inches, 2013
Rebel soldiers trek from village to village to rape, leaving a wide path of death and destruction. Physical and psychological trauma mars Sahara and Irina; the signature of violence leaves an indelible scar.
Against all odds, Sahara and Irina are experiencing emotional healing. In learning to forgive their perpetrators—bit by bit—shame is unshackled. The result? These women are recapturing the spirit of dignity.
Dignity, Watercolor on paper, 44x33 inches, 2013
The Flame Tree
The copper tree represents the African Flame Tree, a resilient tree that showcases brilliant red flowers. The charred frames symbolize the family members slaughtered in Congo's holocaust. Since the beginning of the genocide, an estimated six million people—fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters—have been savagely killed.
Though vicious enemies have sought to annihilate the Congolese people, their sturdy generational roots continue to grow. Glowing faces rise under the blackened frames portraying their courageous spirits. And these survivors, like the Flame Tree's blossoms, still radiate stunning beauty.
The Flame Tree, Multi media, 40x95 inches, 2012
NOTE: Models have been used to represent the Congolese survivors.
Beauty, Watercolor on paper, 22x30 inches, 2014
Forbearance, Watercolor on paper, 22x30 inches, 2013
Innocence, Watercolor on paper, 18x24 inches, 2013
Faith, Watercolor on paper,
Study painting, 12x16 inches, 2013
Ethnic hatred forced Mesha to flee. In a place where the HIV virus spreads like the flu, she found asylum in a refugee camp that swarmed with 60,000 inhabitants. But ethnic hatred continued to terrorize her. Mesha said, “Every day I feared for my life. There was no peace at the well, the market, or even the hospital.”
Like a prisoner with enemies locked within her cell, Mesha was unable to leave the compound's barbed wire boundary for sixteen long years. This prolonged abuse, however, has fortified her character; Mesha exemplifies a strength birthed out of anguish.
Hope, Watercolor on paper, 22x30 inches, 2013
As gunfire broke out, Jetta and her children fled to Uganda. Separated from her husband—not knowing if he lived—she found refuge in a tiny room with gapping holes in the roof. “During rainstorms, I huddled my children into the only dry corner,” Jetta said, “where we stood all night. I cried like a baby.”
Unexpectedly, three years later, Jetta saw her husband step out of a taxicab. Screaming and weeping, she ran towards him, arms outstretched. Jetta had survived, and her courage preserved life and reunited her family.
Love, Watercolor on paper, 20x20 inches, 2013
Rwanda staggered under genocide's grip. For two weeks, Kibibi, her husband, and their baby hid from murderous countrymen. But when neighbor after neighbor was massacred, the young family fled. “We had to jump over dead bodies everywhere to pass,” said Kibibi. “My hands wouldn't stop trembling. I was so afraid I would drop my baby.”
That night they finally reached the embassy. Inside the compound, though, food was scarce, and the water was tainted. Stench choked the air. Kibibi left the embassy, daily risking her life, to gather firewood for cooking. Love for her family propelled Kibibi forward.
These valiant Congolese women have suffered great loss. But their enemies couldn't destroy their tenacious spirit. These women still sing. The atrocities afflicted upon them have only strengthened the flames of bravery in their hearts. And these flames have burst into a roaring fire: their Courage Ablaze.
Pamela Alderman's installation, “Courage Ablaze: The Women and Children of Congo,” brought to the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities' LookOut! Art Gallery at Michigan State University an exceptional opportunity to learn about and connect with the struggles and strength of the Congolese people. Through both gentle portraits and the tacit violence of children's rape dresses and a charred tree, the wars of half-a-world away are made as immediate as the Congo minerals that power the cell phones in our pockets and that fuel these wars. By raising awareness, starting conversations, and building partnerships, Pamela's artworks aim to foster social change
Dr. Carolyn Loeb
Associate Professor, Art and Architectural History
Residential College in the Arts and Humanities
Michigan State University
Courage Ablaze works donated to Grand Valley State University of Grand Rapids, Michigan; Women At Risk, International of Grandville, Michigan; and Bethany Christian Services of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For reasons of security and personal sensitivity, pseudonyms and models have been used to protect the identities of some of the individuals. Sophie, Sahara, and Irina are composite women; their vignettes are a combination of true stories from various Congolese women.