Congolese refugee launches American art career with help from Refugee Assistance Partners of N.J.

By Brenna Holland | For NJ Advance Media

When Muyambo Marcel Chishimba was referred to the Refugee Assistance Partners of New Jersey (RAP), he expected to be helped in his effort to navigate the government, housing and school systems in his new home of Elizabeth. What Chishimba did not expect was that RAP would be the organization to help jump start his career as an artist in the United States.

RAP’s slogan is, “we choose welcome,” and that is exactly what they work to do each day for refugees settling in and around Union County. Chishimba and his family have been attending RAP’s tutoring and Sunday Sharing meetings, which are held in the basement of a local church, ever since they emigrated from Zambia nine months ago.

“One of the first things they did when they heard I was a painter was buy me new art supplies,” Chishimba explained.

RAP is the kind of organization that evolves each week depending on the differing needs of those coming to their sessions. If the children need extra help with school, there will be tutoring. If parents need help filling out paperwork, there will be someone to sit with and guide them. And if one of their members happens to be a talented painter, there will most certainly be help getting the word out about his work.

Now, less than a year since he was approved for resettlement in America, Chishimba is set to make his artistic debut at the Maplewood Memorial Library.

Chishimba, the nephew of acclaimed African artist Kabemba Albert Stounas, discovered his natural ability to paint as a child and parlayed that into a career that has spanned 50 years, three countries, two continents and, now, one library in New Jersey.

“I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1950. My first memories of painting were of my uncle sending me off to school to learn to paint,” Chishimba said.

As a young boy, Chishimba split his time between his childhood home in the Congo and a school for young painters just south of the border in Zambia. Despite the growing conflict in the Congo during the 1970s and 1980s under President Mobutu, Chishimba managed to find success as a painter, exhibiting and selling his work in nearby Zambia, Malawi and Swaziland.

Though he’d taken the time to learn the art of portraiture, mosaic and landscape in his studies, abstractionism quickly became Chishimba’s artistic playground. He admired the works of Pablo Picasso and adopted a similar, reality-bursting approach to his own craft.

“I’m inspired by the things I see throughout the day. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an image or an expression in my head that I have to paint,” Chishimba said.

A through-line in much of his work are his bold and colorful strokes that create highly-textured backgrounds, and his abstract figures in the foreground that, Chishimba explained, are meant to evoke the feeling and people of the Congo.

In 1993, as tensions in his homeland were reaching a new fever-pitch, Chishimba suffered the loss of his wife and was forced to cross the border into Zambia — this time as a refugee. This marked the beginning of a nearly 20-year period, during which Chishimba lived in a refugee camp with his family and, ultimately, with his second wife, Mary.

In order to buy food and supplies for his family while living in the camp, Chishimba sold portraits and landscapes in nearby towns, eventually gaining the attention of former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. The president was so taken by his talent, that he commissioned Chishimba to paint a portrait of him.

“President Kaunda loved the portrait I painted of him very much and he knew how my family suffered in the camp. He helped us move into the town, where we were able to stay in a house and the children were able to go to school,” Chishimba said.

Chishimba was also granted new freedoms by living in the town. He began to have his paintings exhibited again, began teaching art and began the lengthy process of filing for resettlement in America. It would be several years before Chishimba and his family, which now included seven children, finished the vetting process and were granted residency in the United States.

When they were finally approved for resettlement, Chishimba packed only a suitcase of necessities to bring with him, leaving behind his art supplies and several finished works.

Chishimba and his family are counted among the lucky few refugees who have managed to resettle in America during the Trump administration. The Elizabeth headquarters of the International Rescue Committee—the largest refugee resettlement agency in NJ—reported that refugee arrivals in Elizabeth dropped 63 percent toward the end of 2016, and that number has only become more dramatic over time.

Chishimba, who is somewhat of a savant when it comes to languages — he’s fluent in Swahili, Lingala and French, and has a conversational understanding of English — said restarting his life in America has proven to be a difficult task. So, the RAP assistance has been invaluable.

“My whole life, I have been a painter. I have never known another job. I only want to paint and I hope I can do that here,” Chishimba said.

His upcoming exhibit at the Maplewood Memorial Library is sponsored, in part, by RAP. On display will be paintings Chishimba has completed in the past year, each available for private purchase through RAP. The exact date of the exhibit will be determined after the need for social distancing as a result of the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

“My family is very excited to see my paintings exhibited again. My whole family paints. It’s in our blood,” Chishimba said.

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