Arts Activism in East Congo
How effective is protest art when it comes to making change? You may be familiar with all the songs that protested against war and injustice from decades past. The arts can actually be a useful tool for sparking discussions and spreading new ideas. Art activism is a relatively peaceful way to protest, but of course one should always consider good strategy when it comes to using art this way.
In East Congo, Yole!Congo is a bright point in a region that has been torn by conflict. It gathers youth in a relatively safe place where they can develop skills and gain an education and has become the center of peaceful activism through the development of the arts. This is at a time when services like education and cultural centers have been deemed nonessential and shut down throughout regions where rebels are still active within Congo, so the youth often have few options other than joining rebel militias or fleeing the region as refugees.
The youth who attend Yole!Congo often risk their lives for their art because they may become targets for rebels. A student of cinema by the name Hubert Bonke said while being featured in a student-produced film called “Dream Under Fire”, “Dying without making my film, that would have been terrible for me!” Even with the risk, Yole!Congo serves between 14,000 and 17,000 students a year and offers a variety of free classes in the arts as well as linguistics and computer literacy.
However, the directors of Yole!Congo have criticized international efforts to get involved in local arts as a means of educating the public and providing a beacon of hope. For instance, the directors felt that a music competition put on by UNICEF and Solidarity International put too much emphasis on hand washing as a means to control cholera outbreaks in a community where access to clean water is limited and, therefore, hand washing would be of limited use at best. This and related problems for funding the arts as a means of activism prompted Yole!Congo to launch an art series titled “Art On The Front Line” to provide a platform that is free from foreign intervention that may be seen as censorship by local artists.
This emphasizes the importance of local autonomy especially when it comes to developing the arts as a means of activism. Local communities are likely to understand their own needs best and may resent the imposition of foreign interpretations of the communities’ needs. Telling people to wash their hands without helping to provide fresh water is like telling people to get more fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet when fresh fruits and vegetables may not be readily available or affordable for most people in the region. For this reason, organizations like Yole!Congo usually prefer to retain control of local arts activism efforts whenever possible.
Beyond the arts activism, Yole!Congo provides practical value to the youth who attend its classes, who often go on to pursue professions in the arts, law, business, politics, journalism and education. In this way, local organizations in unstable regions can help youth feel like they have options beyond the violence happening around them and are more likely to establish successful new lives for themselves if they are accepted into more stable countries when they may be forced to flee. Because of this, Yole!Congo is one organization that is worth drawing attention to as a rare beacon of hope in a war-torn region.
Arts activism is capable of calling attention to the reality of violence and injustice in regions like East Congo if the art produced by people living in these regions can be shared with a wider audience. The people living in these situations can tell their stories if they can do it without being censored by the outside world who might mortgage their morals by twisting their art to serve a foreign agenda. For example, you can view Art on the Front Line’s Youtube channel to see what people really are going through on the front line in the Congo civil war. This kind of effort can help to dispel myths about injustices going on around the world and make people aware of real issues in regions and environments that they might not have thought of very much.