Congo artists exhibit work in South Africa

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A sculptural bust made of discarded bullet cartridges has a protruding belly with a hole in it. Another bust encased in a large glass case has holes in its heart, belly and thigh.

"The hole represents life," Freddy Tsimba, 43, said of the busts he made using tens of thousands of bullet cartridges he has collected over more than 10 years of war in his native Congo.

Tsimba and 10 other renowned Congolese artists exhibited work in South Africa’s commercial hub last week for "Art for Peace," a show whose proceeds will support victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo.

"Through the arts we hope to contribute to the healing process," said South African Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile. "We reach out to the women and children of eastern (Congo) who have been scarred and whose scars will last a lifetime."

Exhibitors said the money will benefit a hospital in Bukavu, a large city in eastern Congo. Panzi Hospital specializes in the treatment of reproductive trauma and trauma from sexual violence.

Violence is reaching new levels of savagery in this corner of Congo, where competition for control of mineral resources has drawn in several armed groups, including the Congolese army.

Various groups of fighters there have used rape as a strategy to intimidate, punish and control the population.

The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people have been raped or sexually abused in Congo. The pervasiveness of rape in the Congo is part of what makes it so horrifying — one-third of Congo’s rapes involve children, and 13 percent of victims are children under the age of 10.

The biggest UN peacekeeping force in the world of 18,000 troops has been unable to end the violence in Congo. At least 8,300 rapes were reported in 2009, but aid workers say the true toll is much higher.

Survivors of sexual assault in eastern Congo face many challenges getting help because of displacement, political insecurity and a lack of facilities.

Asa Runstrom, a spokeswoman for Panzi Hospital, said they give free treatment to all victims of sexual violence. She said contributions would help them continue their work and help victims when they return home.

"We are not here to cry but to look at the strength of these women," said Willy Yav, who helped curate the exhibit with The Pygma Group, an Africa-based consulting group.

The works, chosen by the 11 all-male artists, ranged from pastoral to shocking.

Painter Doudou Mbemba Lumbu said his work depicts life as it should be. One piece shows four colorfully dressed women in conversation and at ease, carrying fruit bowls on their heads.

Sculptor Alfred Liyolo, 68, said his art depicts human relations.

"I am an artist of calm, of peace and sensuality," he said, showing off his sculpture of a woman carrying a child. His work, modern with smooth lines and minimalist detail, evokes movement through the space it carves out.

Other works drew mixed reactions from the crowd, such as a painting by Mavinga Ma N’Kondo Ngwala that depicts a priest reading a pornographic magazine. Next to the priest sits a Bible and a vase with a cross on it.

Another painting by Ngwala depicts a harsh image of life in Congo: three men on a street, one passed out on a table, another haggard and sitting on the ground. A third man bears a blank expression, with a cigarette in his mouth. Nearby, children play with a worn-out soccer ball on a dirt field.

Marang Setshwaelo, who helped set up the exhibition for public relations firm Dreamcatcher, said the firm hopes the show will tour southern African nations and receive support.

"It is a daily struggle at the hospital and every bit helps," she said.

In Johannesburg, the show will continue through April 8 at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton.

Houston Maludi’s work in black and white presents a puzzle. From afar, one piece shows a simple image of two figures.

But look closer, and within the lines and shades are violent images of guns, and words such as "insecurite" and "UN."

Papy Malambu Dibandi’s work represents working men, though his painting is absent of women. He said his work shows that men should serve others.

"My work is about responsibility," he said, putting his hand to his heart. "In the man, there is the woman."

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