Making a Mural in Burundi
In the spring of 2018, I spent 3 weeks painting a mural in Kigutu, Burundi, Central East Africa for a health clinic called Village Health Works (VHW).
The mural tells the story of how the men, women, and children of the village came together, and using their farm tools, but mostly their bare hands (and heads), built a road and cleared land for the much needed clinic. You can read the background story in my husband Tracy's book "Strength in What Remains".
Burundi has suffered many years of civil war and is still plagued with political and economic instability. In this setting of extreme poverty VHW treats 100,000 patients a year - people of both ethnic groups, who, less than a generation ago, were at war.
I created the mural on a long sheet of paper in my western MA studio. Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the founder of VHW, shared photos with me that he had taken of the villagers hoeing, carrying rocks, bricks, etc. I drew figures based on those photos and designed a panoramic setting for them, incorporating actual features such as distinctive hills and Lake Tanganyika. The early clinic (today expanded into a full service hospital) is represented schematically (in the upper middle right of the mural); and five sections reveal the health care going on inside.
The site VHW chose for the mural was the interior wall of a vast, light-filled community center, primarily used for nutritional education. It is also used for celebrations and lectures, as well as for music, dance and story-telling performances. On certain days of the week, you can hear traditional drumming practice outside.
Believing that education is an important part of healthcare, VHW, just this year (2020), opened Kigutu Academy, a boarding school, serving 9th-12th graders from all over Burundi. After the mural was finished, I was told that it would help introduce students to visual story-telling, and help them understand their cultural history.
It is a trip of 60 miles on bad roads from the capital of Bujumbura to Kigutu. Since it is difficult to get supplies there, I brought everything with me: acrylic paints, brushes, rags, tape, a chalkline, tape measure, charcoal, yogurt containers and six photographic repros of different sections of the original paper mural, which I left back home in my studio. My helpers were two men from the maintenance crew, Clement and Protais, who had experience painting walls. A third helper, 20 year old Christophe, had recently come to Kigutu looking for a job, but had only found part-time work. He had learned some art skills, and turned out to be of invaluable help with the mural.
I began by blocking in the large shapes on the wall with the help of a mini digital projector (which proved useless thereafter because I had no tripod). Next, I painted the sky blue and the earth green with latex house paint. Then, with charcoal, I drew the columns, the figures, trees, buildings, and clouds. At this point, I was joined by my three helpers who painted the architectural framing elements a basic brown. Since subsequent tasks called for more specialized painting skills, Clement and Protais went back to their regular jobs, and Christophe and I continued on. We made a good team. Christophe worked hard and was eager to learn more about painting. He evidently impressed those in authority because, soon thereafter, he was given a full time job.
I have travelled to Burundi three times, and I hope to return some day to this beautiful, troubled country to see the marvelous work being done by Village Health Works. In the meantime, I will contribute financially to their cause - and you can too at villagehealthworks.org.
Some thoughts on landscape painting
The wonderful thing about landscape is that it surrounds you, bombarding not just your eyes, but your skin, your ears and your nose. I used to paint landscapes only during the summer – scenic views, often, when in Maine, from a small boat. The rest of the year I pursued human subjects – groups of masked party-goers, refugees; then I turned to animals: a riff on the Etruscan Wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, followed by a lot of dog paintings.
When I took up landscape painting full-time, I was no longer interested in capturing scenic views. I wanted to invigorate my painting process, to wake up my senses. I was attracted to locations that I think of as confrontational (often without any horizon or sky) and seemingly involved in some kind of drama enacted by the forces of nature.
In addition to small on-site studies, I used photographs. I use photos with some trepidation because they have a way of flattening shadows, as well as dulling edges, color and light. But I like to think that I can exploit this innate poverty of my photographic images, by using it as a spur to explore the expressive possibilities of the paint marks themselves.
In my work based on the Mill River disaster of 1874, I am pursuing the same themes of confrontation and drama in nature, while commenting on human greed and error.