Children at a centre for street kids in Kinshasa. Many children are made homeless after being accused of being sorcerers when a family suffers bad luck and economic hardship, 2005. Image © Marcus Bleasdale / VII Photo.
"I dreamed of Congo long before I came to know it. It filled my dreams with charms and challenges. And when my journeying finally took me there, I recognised its warmth, air and aura. How the spirit to survive works in the Congo. Now let us free the spirit to thrive."
The Congo has long fascinated writers and photographers who travelled there to document the human rights abuses that have plagued the area since the colonial rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. The above quote from Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, represents a more positive outlook and is one of several excerpts of writing included in I Dream of Congo – the title of the show, as well as the phrase to which photographers and writers were invited to creatively respond. The exhibition will launch at Conway Hall in February, a venue founded in 1929 to promote free speech.
Leslie Thomas of Art Works Projects curated the work by photographers such as Marcus Bleasdale, Dominic Nahr and Jehad Nga, and writers such as Adam Hochshild, Michela Wrong and Eve Ensler.
Instead of concentrating on the country's long-documented troubles, the gallery states that I Dream of Congo aims to celebrate the hope and optimism that pervades in the region, despite years of conflict. "Hope survives even in the darkest places, and nowhere is this more evident than in eastern DRC," adds Nicola York, co-founder of non-profit Congo Connect, which produced the show.
To further realise this aim, Congo Connect worked closely with Women for Women International to encourage the participation of women from Bukavu, eastern Congo, who were given cameras and notebooks to document their lives for one week last December.
Their photographs and writing will be seen alongside those of the renowned photojournalists and journalists, and will touch upon issues that continue to blight the country: conflict, illicit trade of minerals and sexual violence.
Encouraging participation and debate from the audience, I Dream of Congo will be accompanied by a series of related evening events – a panel discussion on the future of peace in Congo, an evening of talks and presentations, and a concert of Congolese musicians – taking place at Conway Hall.
The exhibition has a limited run at the London venue and there are plans to take it around the UK and US later this year. Selected works will be auctioned off following the tour, with proceeds donated to fund projects on the ground in Congo. And for those interested in the issues but unable to attend, all content will be put online following the show's launch, to encourage ongoing debate and reflection.
I Dream of Congo: Narratives from the Great Lakes is free and open to the public on Saturday 16 February (9.30am-5pm) and Saturday 23 February (9.30am-4.30pm). For full details, go to www.congoconnect.co.uk/exhibition.
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