African artists create greater understanding by portraying life in China, an exhibition in Beijing reveals
In a Kansas schoolyard in 1979, alone in a crowd of children at play, Akonga Jonas Theodore made a discovery that would determine the course of his adult life.
Newly arrived in the United States, the 7-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo was isolated from the other children by barriers of language and culture.
In that lonely place, Akonga found his voice and his calling.
He spoke to his playmates not in the tongue of his African homeland, but in the scratchy whisper of pencil on paper, in the language of lines and shading.
“I took a pencil, and I drew what I wanted to say,” Akonga remembers. “This is how I started using art to communicate with people.”
It is a skill the now Beijing-based 41-year-old still uses.
“I did the same thing when I moved to China in 2003,” he says.
Paints and brushes have become Akonga’s communication tools along with English and Mandarin. Using art to transcend language and culture has become his profession, as well as his passion.
On Nov 22, his work appears as part of a groundbreaking exhibition in Beijing that documents through paintings, drawings and photographs the experiences of Africans living in China.
The driving force behind the exhibition, Beijing-based photographer and artist Njoku “Saint Jerry” Ajike, says he wants to reveal the largely untold journey that African immigrants have undertaken in China over the past decade.
When the 37-year-old Nigerian artist arrived in Beijing five years ago, he says he felt constrained by an erroneous stereotype that Africans were just out to make a buck any which way they could.
Few people, he says, realized what the African community was giving back to Beijing and the other Chinese cities where they had made lives and homes.
“The story of Africa in China is all hustle and bustle,” he says. “This exhibition is a different view of Africans in China. It is archival, what Africans were able to discover here, what they built.”
Believed to be the first African photographer to have his work featured in China’s renowned Pingyao Photo Festival, in 2009 Njoku began publishing LensAfrik, a magazine focused on telling the African story in the world’s second-largest economy.