"Courage Ablaze" highlights strength, courage of Congolese refugees

November 17, 2015

Grand Rapids artist Pamela Alderman’s exhibit Courage Ablaze: The Women and Children of Congo is on display from November 2 through 19 in the RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery. In watercolor, sculpture and fabrics, the exhibit tells the stories of Congolese refugees.

Alderman was inspired when she met a group of Congolese women at an event in western Michigan. According to Alderman, approximately 20,000 Congolese refugees live in the area.

“I just learned that these women had absolutely heartwrenching stories about what had happened to them,” Alderman said. Many people in Congo have had their families torn apart by extreme violence, and many of the women whose stories the exhibit tells have been victims of sexual assault.

“I was like, how can I walk away from this story? It’s not fun, it’s not comfortable, but I realized I couldn’t walk away from it either. I felt responsibility as an artist to portray something that came into my life,” she said.

While Alderman has never been to Congo herself, the exhibit is inspired by the stories of the women and the research she’s done. 

The center of the gallery features several large, painted pillars, which Alderman said represent the strength of the women.

“If you read the stories, you see the strength, the healing, the nobleness of these women, their dignity their valor. They’re really quite remarkable.”

In addition to the pillars, the collection features a sculpture of a tree.

“The tree represented the family tree and how it’s been destroyed … but their family just keeps on growing as they assimilate orphaned children into their own family,” Alderman said.  

Also on display are the dresses worn by a family of rape victims. Alderman said the stigma of sexual assault in Congo sometimes prohibits victims’ ability to heal.

“Once they’re raped, they don’t want anybody to know they’re raped because it’s such a stigma. They suffer alone and all this pain is just inward instead of letting it out to get the healing,” Alderman said.

In 2012, the work was displayed at ArtPrize, where Alderman said the response was overwhelming.

“Hundreds of people were crying and their hearts would become so tender to the story and the universal suffering of mankind,” Alderman said. “People would wait until my gallery space emptied out and during the little pauses individuals would want to quietly tell me they had been a rape victim. This story was speaking to injustices within our own culture.”

Alderman said she hopes the exhibit helps to raise awareness of the war in Congo, which she says has gone largely undocumented. In 2013, the war and its origins were detailed in this article from The Atlantic, but current visibility remains limited. 

“Why is this not in the U.S. news? Why haven’t we heard about it? Eight million people have been slaughtered, we have another holocaust going on and we never hear about it,” she said.


Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block, photos by Katie Wittenauer.