Merlene Davis: Artistic talent helps Congo refugee start new life in Ky.

This photo of Kiza Didier  Mukandama with one of his paintings was taken in 2004. He had to leave all his art behind.
This photo of Kiza Didier Mukandama with one of his paintings was taken in 2004. He had to leave all his art behind.

When Kiza Didier Mukandama was 4 or 5 years old, he picked up a pencil and began to draw.

"I would sit down and draw people," he said. "My dad was against that. He wanted me to focus on education."

In the Congo, where he grew up, earning a living through art was nearly impossible, and Mukandama's father wanted the best for all of his 11 children.

Still, when he could, he was steal away to a closet and draw. "When someone does have a talent and a gift, you always use it," he said.

Mukandama is proof that his talent couldn't be doused by an ethnic-cleansing war in the Congo that shocked the world and resulted in the deaths of millions of people. It couldn't be smothered by a desperate flight to South Africa to save his life. And it won't be set aside by an escape to Kentucky in hopes of protecting his family.

Mukandama, 47, still wants to use his artistic gift. He and his wife, Malenga, and their two children, Samuel, 11, and Rosa, 9, came to Kentucky in November. His mother, father and brother had settled here in 1996 to escape the war. His father, Emedi Mwenebwenga, had studied at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Why the difference in their last names? "In the Congo," Mukandama said, "parents didn't use the same surnames in families. The child could grow up and some wouldn't know this is my child."

It was a means of protecting children when parents were targeted because of tribal ties or actions.

When his parents came to Kentucky in 1996, Mukandama headed for South Africa, where he worked as a security guard for five years.

"The money, $300 a month, was nothing for me and for the family," he said. "Then I sat down and told my wife, 'I know how to draw and I have to use the talent that God gave me.' We prayed over that for about six months before I decided to do my first paintings."

The day he resigned from his job, a man asked him to paint a portrait of a boy from a photograph. The man had heard that Mukandama was talented.

"I don't know what touched that man to come to be at the same time I resigned," he said. "I believe there was a connection of God because we took time to pray over it."

The man was pleased enough to buy materials and equipment for him and connected him with the art world in Capetown. Mukandama was very successful. He established a studio in a neighboring township to teach art to homeless children so they might become self-sufficient.

Then, in 2008, the anger of residents grew as the number of refugees increased. One of the students he had been teaching helped to destroy the studio, and Mukandama, as a refugee, was targeted.

He moved his family to a refugee camp and applied for asylum with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which verified that he and his family were in danger.

Unfortunately, he was not allowed to bring any of his work to America, but in the past month he has produced three oil paintings, which are on display at Christ Church Cathedral through Feb. 8.

"He is really good with portraits," said Tricia Moore, a member of the non-profit Artisans Guild. "He is very talented."

The guild focuses on the crafts of indigent populations, and Mukandama's oil pieces are something new for them, Moore said, adding that an Iraqi refugee's pottery and glass works also are on display.

Mukandama said he is grateful for any exposure, any means of introducing himself to the art community in Lexington.

"This is my new home," he said. "I want people to see the potential that is in me."