This weekend in Hartford, an artist from Ivory Coast is opening the first showing of his work in the United States. The Friday and Saturday receptions at Passages Gallery are an opportunity to check out a previously unseen artistic talent as well as a chance to hear the artworks' fascinating backstory.
"I used to do exhibits every year in Cote d'Ivoire. Then I got kidney failure. I thought all I had was malaria, but I had kidney failure, too. And the political situation was so hot I had to get out," Georges Annan Kingsley said. "I was threatened with guns. There was civil unrest."
In 2010, Kingsley, married with a son, was an artist, an art teacher, a writer of books about art and an activist for children's rights in the West African nation. At a child-labor conference, he met Jacqueline Lohoues Oble, who wanted to run for president on an anti-corruption platform. She hired Kingsley as her campaign manager. She did well in the preliminary elections then moved on to the final campaign. That's when the trouble began.
"She formed an alliance with a former president. We thought he had won, and he made her minister of education. I was deputy minister," said Kingsley, 45. "After the campaign, they arrested her. The other president said he had won. ... He arrested her for taking a job she had no right to take. Nobody knows who won the election, still.
"I was in the hospital with kidney failure. I was deputy minister, and I never could report to the office, I was sick," he said. "People came to the hospital with guns five times looking for me. The doctors had to hide me. Then civil war brought the country to a standstill. ... People were shot for just wearing a shirt with a political party on it. Three thousand people died in the war. ... I needed to be on dialysis. The medicine I needed could not get in to the country."
His bank account of $10,000 was frozen, so he talked a bishop into smuggling him into Ghana. "I was escaping for my life," he said. "All the cars on the roads were stopped and checked. They would not search the bishop." The bishop dropped him off in Ghana and gave him $100.
Still, in Ghana, he was denied medical care for two and a half months. By the time the U.N. High Commission on Refugees cleared him, he was almost comatose. While he was sick, his body immobile, ideas for paintings and sculptures ran through his head.
"I didn't have the strength to write out ideas, but my brain was still working," said Kingsley, who has a bachelor's degree from the School of Applied Arts in Ivory Coast and a master's from Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. "I dreamed about it."
Kingsley's contacts with the Catholic Church helped him get refugee status to move to Hartford. Here, he began painting again. "It's like a joy in me. Each painting I'm doing, I think it's going to be my last," he said. "When it's done and I look at it, I think, I'm not dead. I'm so happy."
He works in both figurative and abstract and uses color symbolically. Kingsley's abstract works have roots in the sorrows of his native land.
"'The Storm' is about a peaceful country until a person comes and mixes everything up," he said. "'The Cry of Africa' is about a mother crying blood because of the civil war because of all the children who went away as slaves, because of deforestation. ... 'Refugee Road' is about all the refugees. The road of hope can take many directions."
Most of his nonabstract works show peaceful West African everyday activities, except "Door of No Return." "I visited Goree, an island in Senegal, which was a slave outpost. All those slave places have one thing in common: a door that the slaves pass through. They can see the sea and the sky through the cracks in the door," he said. Kingsley decorated his door with African symbols, showing what the slaves left behind, and many footprints going out, but none going in.
Kingsley's wife, Asse Marthe Ntchohou, and his son, Joe-William Annan Kingsley, are still in Ivory Coast, but he plans to bring them to Hartford as soon as possible. "For them I am still alive," he said.
Kingsley's work also can be seen in "We Belong Here: Freedom Dreams, a Celebration of Local Immigrant Artists," a book soon to be published by Hartford Public Library's immigrant civic integration program. Kingsley works part time with the program, participating in community events, teaching art to children and serving as a role model for other immigrants.
Nancy Caddigan, the library's intercultural liaison, said when she heard Kingsley's story, she thought she would be meeting a different kind of person.
"I thought, 'This person has been through a lot.' I didn't know what his spirit would be like. But I was shocked. He was such a positive man," she said. "He expresses that in his art."
ARTWORK BY GEORGES ANNAN KINGSLEY will be at Passages Gallery,
21 Whitney St., Hartford, opening with receptions from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, and from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31. Regular gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Details: 860-216-4662 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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