by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org and Wisconsin Public Radio
Abu-Hassan "Askia" Koroma came to Madison in 1991, as a decade of brutal violence began in his home country of Sierra Leone. Once here, he was amazed at how hard it was to find news about the unbelievable events and atrocities back home.
But in 2000, Koroma got an idea for a project to finally fill that void. He was on a trip back to Sierra Leone. A former art teacher, he made a point of going to see what kind of paintings people were selling on the street. A man named Simeon Sesay had painted a work called "The Handiwork of Child Combatants" on flimsy, flip-pad-style paper. He wanted the equivalent of about $2.50; Koroma insisted on paying $50.
He then got Sesay to introduce him to friends who also painted "for fun."
"He started taking me around to a couple of people, and I started seeing paintings, and I said, 'you know what, if journalists fail to cover this story, maybe this art from Sierra Leonean artists can actually tell the story.'"
Now Sesay's painting is one of about 40 works in an exhibit put together by "African Artville," an effort launched by Koroma and a group he started, the 21st Century African Youth Movement. The group got funding from a number of Wisconsin groups, including a PortalWisconsin.org partner, the Wisconsin Humanities Council.
Like many works in the exhibit, the bright colors of "The Handiwork of Child Combatants" belie its subject mattercool-headed depictions of horrific acts Koroma thinks the artist may have seen firsthand. In it walks a line of children holding guns, their maimed victims lying beside them. Above that scene a parallel line of people, displaced by violence, carry their belongings to the huts of a refugee camp.
An exhibit titled "Representations of Violence" opened in March 2003 at the Porter-Butts Gallery on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. In May, the show traveled to Madison's Common Wealth Gallery. Tentative plans are in the works to display it in Los Angeles, Baltimore, London, Amsterdam, and, says Koroma, "wherever it is destined to go."
When the exhibit finishes touring, Koroma wants it to move immediately to a new building in Sierra Leonea center to be built by the 21st Century African Youth Movement, a place intended both to draw tourists and to house educational programs that will help people better themselves after ten years of war.
Sierra Leone's conflict started as a civil war in 1991. Over the next ten years, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International, rebels routinely removed people's limbs, made children fight for them, and raped women. Sierra Leone's army, which took power from 1992-96, instead of quelling the uprising, proved capable of its own atrocitiesa betrayal alluded to in Julius Cornelius Parker's pen-and-ink drawing "Power Madness." In it, a gunman sits above a landscape of skulls and corpses. Wearing emblems of both rebels and state soldiers, and with Sierra Leone's pristine new statehouse in the background, the gun-toting figure becomes a symbol of man's vicious fight for power.
The BBC reports tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans were victimized during the 1990s. Some estimates are as high as 200,000. The conflicts were eventually halted with the help of the international community.
Viewers of the show at the UW-Madison's Porter-Butts Gallery left comments in a guest book, ranging from "Thank you for creating such a powerful exhibit. I...had no idea this happened. I am horrified" to "You run the risk of appearing to sensationalize a national tragedy" to simply "Ugh."
Things are better in Sierra Leone today. A Special Court for war crimes and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission are trying to heal people's traumas.
As for African Artville, Koroma hopes the exhibit is just the beginning. He wants to use art to tell the story, and support the people, of a different African country every year. And at africanartville.org, you cannot only see all the works from the exhibit but introduce yourself to young Sierra Leonean musical groups and more.
It's all the work of a group that hopes to build international bridges using shape, line and colorand to salve wounds with art.