Raphael Kalala Lusengu
A Passionate Painter From The Heart Of Africa
I was born in a city called Kolwezi in the present Democratic Republic of Congo. My family was poor and consisted of four boys and only one girl. As my mother was very often sick, my sister, who was the youngest, had to take over all the domestic work and become the pillar of the family. Some of this work included getting water from the river three kilometers away, collecting firewood, harvesting the maize from the fields, cooking, doing the laundry, and many more chores. All so that the boys could go to school. Because of all these arduous tasks, my sister didn't grow much and stayed way smaller compared to all her peers. The entire village would shamelessly mock her for this. She had tears in her eyes almost on a daily basis.
As her brother, I started to get involved in her situation more and more. It seemed unfair to me that my little sister couldn't go to school and didn't enjoy normal growth because she had to take care of the entire family, and all of this just simply because she was a girl! I constantly questioned God why my mother was always sick and why He only gave her useless boys, who could not help in her daily chores. It seemed to me that the roles divided between girls and boys were highly unfair. Girls had to do all the work while all boys had to do was to play the boss.
As I became more and more involved in the role of my little sister and the role of women in general with seeing so much injustice and violence against women around me, I decided to become a voice for those who could not speak for themselves. In my view, women are the source of life and children are the future of life.
As I grew older it became more and more clear that God had blessed me with artistic talent. By then we had relocated to the Katanga province in Congo where my father had a job in the copper mines. I did my primary school years there, where the Head Master discovered my artistic talent and made me the leading drawer of the school at the young age of seven. My dream to one day become a respected painter was born. I dreamed of going to the Lubumbashi Art College after finishing school but my early dreams were crushed by my father's forced retirement at the copper mines.
Unfortunately, my father lost his job in the mines. With no more money coming in, my family had to move back to the little village where we came from. There I had to go to an agriculture college nearby. From day one, I realized that school was not for me and I wasn't happy there at all. Fortunately, my talent got shortly afterwards rediscovered by the catholic missionary, Jerome Calebaut. He took me to the Gandajika Art School where I completed my artistic education. My education did not stop there as I had the luck to be scouted by the German Wilhelm Thelen Private Art School in Düsseldorf, who offered me an extended education in painting. After finishing my education in Germany, I spent one more year in Austria under the teaching care of Professor Heriber Potuznik.
After my educational training in Europe, I returned home to Congo. It was a very difficult time for me to make a living out of my artistic skills. To add on top of that Congo was going through some very unstable and dangerous times. One of my artworks that I am most proud of is when the great Muhammad Ali came to Congo for his boxing match against George Foreman. I painted a big portrait of Muhammad Ali and gave it to him personally. He was so impressed with my artistic skills that he wanted to take me with him to the United States of America. At that time my English was so poor that I could barely speak with him. Too afraid of leaving to a country where I could not communicate with its people, I refused his offer. Who knows what could have been possible if I had dared to say 'yes'.
A big turning point in my life came when I was invited to an art exhibition in the Chamber of Commerce in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. My country was going through some turbulent times and freedom of expression wasn't one of its spearpoints. Fearlessly but above all young and naive I had painted a beautiful portrait of the murdered Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. He was the first democratically elected Prime Minister after the independence of my country from its colonizers and a well-respected fighter for human rights. To my own sorrow, he got murdered in his first year of duty after a violent coup lead by colonel Joseph Mobutu. At the exhibition in the Chamber of Commerce, I wanted to send a strong message portraying freedom of expression to the press and gathered politicians by showing my painted portrait of Lumumba. At that time any public show of his image was forbidden. Just shortly after the exhibition, I got arrested by the regime, who tortured me and broke my hip, crippling my right leg. I decided I had to leave my well-beloved home country and fled with my family to Lusaka in Zambia. My right leg never fully recovered and stayed my proud living symbol of artistic freedom of expression!
In Lusaka, I got more and more involved in Nelson Mandela's political movement, the African National Congress, and their freedom struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The president of the movement, Oliver Tambo, was operating from Lusaka while being in exile. I started to make paintings for the movement to create awareness for the freedom struggle in South Africa and my paintings got shipped by the African National Congress to different places and headquarters all over the continent. To prevent becoming politicized and jeopardize any future for myself and my family, I signed these paintings with the pseudonym 'Karaph', which is an aggregation of my first names Kalala and Raphael.
After I started making a name in the African art scene I got in touch with an NGO called The First Children's Embassy In The World, which provides food and learning materials to homeless and orphaned children. I went back to live in my home country Congo and became an ambassador between the Children’s Embassy and Congo. Part of the money I made out of my paintings went into providing and shipping goods for the many orphaned children in Congo. Besides my paintings, I started helping organize shippings of study materials and food from Europe to the children in need, together with the Children’s Embassy.
At first, everything went well but at a certain point, the government suspected me of helping rebel groups while all I did was providing helpless children with basic goods. One day I came home from helping with a shipping to find that both my home and art studio had been burnt to the ground. Once again I decided that it was not safe for me to stay in Congo and I fled my country with my family. The plan was to get in touch with some old colleagues in Europe to see if it would be possible for me and my family to live and work from Europe.
While waiting for the response of my colleagues, I went to live in Cape Town, South Africa with my family. My younger brother was living there with his family. His family consisted of 7 children. Unfortunately, he died shortly after my arrival in Cape Town. So I decided to abandon the original plan of going to Europe and stayed in Cape Town to help take care of and provide for the children my brother had left behind. I am grateful for my family and have been blessed with nine beautiful daughters, one son, and 23 grandchildren. I am incredibly happy that God provided me with so many daughters. After all, women are the source of life and beauty. In February 2021 my last daughter got married. My grandchildren live across South Africa, Congo, Germany and Greece, speaking of an international family! To this day I still live in Cape Town but it is my absolute dream to travel back to my home country Congo in the near future to start up my own art school for the talented youth.