By MAGGIE M, Editor, Wedgee-in-Chief, theWedge.LIVE
As an interviewer, it’s my task to make people cry (humor). Last Wednesday in Kingston, my guest’s eyes moistened as she revisited her time on the other side of the planet. Ironically, our time together made me sob.
“I want you to spend time looking at the wall,” she said as I began packing my equipment.
It dawned on me, my guest finds ambivolence repugnant (my words.) Exploration of her works should not devolve into self-adulating social justice or virtue signalling. Or exploitation of suffering for eyeballs here.
I elected to trash our live interview. I should have worn my jeans, we should have sat on the floor, uncomfortable. I should of guided a conversation not a show. The set was anathema to our context, true courage.
One-hundred-thirty-five Congolese children call her “Mama Heather.” When she visits their little village–built from her means, wits and friends–everyone breaks into dancing.
Heather Haynes is a renown, professional artist who works from her atelier and gallery in Gananoque, Ontario. Rewind to 2008, Haynes had no expectation of the long, tortuous journey before her.
It started in Uganda, then Tanzania and finally, the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was attending conferences, researching the lives of indigenous women for inspiration. Just before leaving Kigali airport in Rwanda, she met Kizungu Hubert.
“There was a Congolese man sitting there, in a restaurant with his laptop,” Haynes shares. “He showed me some papers about the sixteen children that he adopted and cared for near the city of Goma.” The two exchanged contact information. This was the trigger-point, eight years which transformed her life, her work, and her views on life.
It started with long emails from him including photos of his children. During those years she returned to Goma, capturing hundreds of children and women in photography and video. She began to paint the children until “The Wall of Courage,” was complete with eighty-one children on eighty canvases.
I looked at many of their portraits. These childrens’ eyes have seen unimaginable horror–and it shows. Haynes does not shy away from the telling of their experiences with words on each canvas.
“The hardest part was writing their stories on the paintings. I knew I was going to make the viewer uncomfortable. I felt compelled to tell the truth.”
“It makes people uncomfortable,” Haynes admits.
Their mothers are raped repeatedly by many men, sometimes their father is one of them. Fathers and mothers are tortured, maimed, disembowled–killed in front of their eyes.
The light in the soul goes out when a child is faced with absolute cruelty; but, these children have found the courage to live on.
“They have joy when they have the certainty of food and shelter for the night,” Haynes says as I comment on the pain I witness in her works. This is the courage of which she speaks and portrays–not her own.
She tends to add wings and halos around them in her works. All the children have been given photos of her paintings reminding them how precious and unforgettable they are.
One day, five-hundred children and adults were waiting for her on arrival. She seemed their only hope. This weighs heavily on her, still. This is the moment I see Haynes draw breath, her eyes glazing with sorrow–their faces surely flashing in her mind. Her affection and concern for these people is palpable.
“If I did not do something, I would have PTSD,” Haynes explains.
A home, two schools, a training centre, a medical clinic and three water catchments were built in short order. Acreage was also purchased to grow food. This is the benevolence of families with means here in East Ontario.
Haynes continues to worry as a mother does. Ebola is nearby preventing her return. And violence is never far even though a wall with barbed wire deters the wickedness on the other side.
“How has this changed you?,” I asked.
“The first four, five times I would feel like my true self [in the Congo] and when I came home I wore a mask. I couldn’t prepare to be one way here and one way there. I took the mask off,” she replied.
I asked what we can learn from this as she spoke of our [trivial pursuits] and complaints.
“There is a secret there that we have lost. Gratitude for the moment,” she concludes.
“There is a secret there that we have lost. Gratitude for the moment”
Haynes does not enjoy flattery. Her eyes look down in regret when I speak of her own courage and remarkable character. If falls short of what needs to be said: “What can I do? How can I help you?”
“We take sponsorships for the children. Right now we have 90 sponsored,” Haynes adds.
In the meantime, watch this extraordinary video shot by Haynes on location in the Congo, featuring the children, women, her friend Cathy Cleary, Kizungu and herself.
Watch courage and joy in action. Great acts are within all of us.