Artist Lema Shamamba highlights the threads that connect cellphone use to violence and exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo in her first solo exhibition at Auckland’s Objectspace.
Embroidered into a purple and yellow dress, a woman has one baby slung on her front and another on her back. Looking at her bright colours, you might think the sky was laughing. Three other women till the soil, as if the harvest will yield plenty to eat.
Beside these women are two shadowy, grey figures holding machine guns. The machine guns are embroidered in the same colour thread as the men. It’s as if their bodies are weapons.
Mulame is artist Lema Shamamba’s first solo show, held at Objectspace in Ponsonby, Auckland. It comprises nine hand-embroidered works and a video reel, exploring regular lives and the way they rub up against conflict and economic exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Lema came here as a refugee in 2009.
Mulame is an expression in the Kihunde dialect for wishing someone a long life. It literally means “be there forever”. It’s a sobering, ironic title paired with the profound loss evoked throughout the work: of village, lives, extracted metals and homeland. The work refers to what Lema says some called a “black season of insecurity” in her village in Bweremana, Masisi. Rebels target villages across the eastern territory of DRC, destroying homes and property and raping women. A 2017 UN report says that conflict-related sexual violence in DRC is used to “intimidate”, “retaliate” and “punish” communities and families. How easily gender is weaponised during unrest. How much women suffer.
Turmoil in DRC started in 1994 following the Rwandan genocide, when 1.2 million Rwandan Hutus fled to Kivu in eastern DRC fearing retribution for the genocide. In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern DRC to find the perpetrators. Tutsi “rebels” formed armed groups, controlling eastern DRC.
When I ask Lema about why she has created this work, she speaks calmly, with an air of quiet confidence: “They know that there is no one who is watching them.”
She is vehement about the impact of DRC’s conflict on women. “They know when they destroy women, they destroy the whole community. They destroy the whole country.”
The purple-and-yellow mother figure carrying babies lingers for me.
When I watch the video works, which help orient the viewer to the DRC, I notice things familiar to my own vanua in Fiji; a woman’s hands cutting meat off a bone, and faded plastic tubs and buckets filled with water. I wonder whether the New Zealand Tongan curator Ane Tonga also found herself orienting via Pacific constellations.
A woman in an elaborate kitenge dress happily talks and gestures in Swahili. Above her head on a painted concrete wall is a public health poster explaining how to avoid ebola.
Throughout Mulame there is a mix of both the familiar and domestic – a hen stitched in black thread – alongside things that are profoundly disturbing – the harm wrought by political and economic violence. In my favourite piece, the final embroidered panel, the logos of companies are stitched in alongside a woman holding her baby beneath a tree, alongside a hand grenade, a gun and a machete. Another figure – perhaps a child – is bent over, dead or in pain. The companies include Nokia, Motorola, HP, Intel, IBM, Toshiba and Dell.
These are companies that have sourced cobalt, coltan and other minerals from mines in DRC, used for cellphone batteries, and perhaps even more perversely, electric cars.
A 2017 UN report says that DRC has 2.7 million internally displaced children, who are vulnerable to forced labour in mines. Diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt. While international pressure has meant some companies source minerals mined by mining corporations rather than artisanal miners (who are more likely to use forced labour), it’s still fraught with violent infractions. And how to feed those children?
Maybe we also need to be held to account for our use of these metals in our technologies. In one work, a thin line of red stitches extends from a cellphone. In another the metallic thread denoting the precious minerals extracted from DRC is the same as that used for a woman’s tears.
The works are bordered with bright blue kitenge, wax-printed cloth, made by the artist’s sister, who has spent five years in a refugee camp in Uganda. Lema says the refugee application process has been confusing. Immigration New Zealand and the UNHCR gave her conflicting advice. Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway has recently announced the removal of a racist policy that required refugees from Africa and the Middle East to have family living here already, along with an increased allocation from 14 to 15%. But still, the racist policy lingers through the regional quotas: 50% goes to the Asia Pacific region despite Africa and the Middle East having the most need.
Lema’s work reminded me of arpilleras, the embroidered and sewn works crafted by Chilean women during the Pinochet dictatorship. These sometimes similarly depict bright rural landscape and militia. Beyond the aesthetic similarities, there’s a similarity in their production: women in potent political situations beyond their control who use whatever they have to hand. Needle and thread.
It’s a strange resistance though, isn’t it? Embroidery is slow! Lema says they take her about a month to stitch. She learnt embroidery as a child, taught by her mother and aunties. A transformed colonial legacy from Belgium. And when I ask Lema about it, she explains that the embroidery transports her.
“When I do the embroidery, I knew that it will take long to do it. I feel much connection with how the women in my country are feeling. I feel that I’m working very hard with them in my country.”
Mulame, then, is a meditation on exile: to live despite another suffering world; to let your fingers and thread do the work of memory; to return to loss as a requisite for survival.
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