In the midst of regional uncertainty, Mapendo Sumuni's colourful store in Goma is giving Congolese artists reason to celebrate and express themselves.
Goma: The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, home to over 50 armed groups, is typically characterised as a place of war and strife. But in the midst of this there is also a great deal of exuberance, life and colour - not least in Mapendo Sumuni's small but vibrant art house, Kivu Nuru, in the town of Goma.
"When I think of art I see beauty, a beauty inside in all of us that wants to see the light of day," says the young Sumuni. "War is just another chapter in our lives. I am not going to let it define who I am."
Throughout Sumuni's life, art has had a special place in her heart. Aged 12, she took to writing, and together with a friend in school produced a small book about the aspirations of two young adolescents. "When I had enough of writing, I picked up painting and later bought and modified clothes to stay tuned with the latest fashion in town," she recalls.
When Sumuni left her hometown of Bukavu to work for an international NGO in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, she continued to explore and play. "I went to the market to buy a few items and started to fool around with them," she says. With a little investment, she set up shop at home and sold her products on her doorstep.
However, the more she became involved in the art scene in Goma, the more she realised the city's hidden potential, though the daily struggle of artists trying to make a living from their passion was equally clear to see. "I thought to myself, let's create beauty together," she says. "People need to express themselves. It's essential to their own identity. And each expression is unique and adds to the mosaic of life. To express is to live."
What was first just a spontaneous idea evolved over the course of the next eight months into a business plan for an art house that provides space for aspiring young talent. Working with more than a dozen artists including sculptors, painters, potters, tailors, writers, and jewellers, Kivu Nuru offers a rich collection of garments, sandals, handbags, paintings, statues, bracelets, earrings, and many other accessories. "These pieces of art speak to the vibrant culture of designers who call our city home," says Sumuni. "Their work reflects their unbound desire to create. It really is a testament to their hope and resolve."
When asked how ordinary Congolese react to her art house, Sumuni beams with excitement: "I couldn't believe my eyes. Many Congolese come and buy our products. They like it a lot. They don't just adore it, they buy it. And they're surprised that all of it comes from Congo. There's definitely an appreciation for art."
Energised by the positive feedback, Sumuni is constantly on the search for new products and artists. When she spoke to Think Africa Press, she had two painters visiting from the capital Kinshasa. Sumuni seized the opportunity and discussed a partnership with them. They were soon planning to put on an art exhibition together. "This is going to up-value the culture. I wish her my best," said one of them.
In light of her recent success, Sumuni will hold her first fashion show at the end of May to present the work of her tailors. As special guests, she has invited the association of sapeurs, a sub-culture known for its colourful mimicry of the elegance of colonial dandies, acrobats, dancers, and musicians. "Each month, I want to feature one particular artist and promote his or her art," says Sumuni, "they have so much potential."
However, while the ideas abound, financial difficulties provide an ongoing challenge. She charges artists on average a 10% commission, and for now the art house is not self-sufficient. Sumuni reveals that she has had to dig deep into her own pockets to keep it going, but insists that that hasn't dissuaded her in the slightest.
"If I focus on profit alone, I will lose my objective," she says. "You know, it's tough, but I am not going to give up!"
Timo Mueller is the Enough Project's Goma-based field researcher, providing facts and analysis on the political security situation in the Eastern Congo.
Prior to joining the Enough Project, Timo gained experience in U.N. advocacy with the International Crisis Group and public outreach with Human Rights Watch.
Timo holds a MA in International Affairs from The New School and a BA with distinction in Human Rights, Peace and Development Studies from Maastricht University.