Kentwood — For East Kentwood High School senior Judith Khalihira, creating a portrait of Patrick Lyoya with her peers was personal.
She wanted to help show the human side of the 26-year-old Congolese refugee who was shot and killed by a police officer April 4 during a traffic stop.
“The reason I wanted to get involved is that (Congolese) is my culture, and I knew Patrick on a personal level. He was a family friend of my parents and brothers,” said Judith, who was born in Rwanda and whose parents are refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo. “He was a family-oriented person. He was a very genuine person, there for his family and his parents.”
‘Art can be – and usually is – one of the main forms of social justice, social response.’– East Kentwood art teacher Olivia Miller
Now complete and on display for ArtPrize at Fountain Street Church, 24 Fountain St. NE, in Grand Rapids, through Oct. 2, the collaborative piece, “Through the Veil,” shows Lyoya’s style and pride in being Congolese, she said.
“The portrait embodies him as a person: put together, bright and colorful and vibrant,” Judith said. “He was very proud of his culture and heritage.”
Students painted Lyoya wearing a traditional African shirt in front of a quilted and hand-painted backdrop. Colors are the red, blue and yellow flag colors of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I’ve learned so much about his culture and community as well as those around me, and how diversity actually impacts our everyday lives,” said senior Adina Hodzic, who helped set up the canvas, painted and traced with her peers. “Just because we are in school does not mean we don’t need diversity around us. It really prepares us for our future.”
A Collaborative Project
East Kentwood art teachers Le Tran, Kimberly Meyers-Baas and Olivia Miller served as mentors for the project, bringing together more than 15 students who worked regularly on the piece last spring. Some were art students and others were just interested in contributing. The project was funded by the “Youth Care and Voice” mini-grant from the Steelcase Foundation and involved collaboration with Fridah Kanini, founder of the annual Grand Rapids celebration, A Glimpse of Africa, and artist Monroe O’Bryant, a 2015 ArtPrize winner. Retired art teacher and professional quilter Virginia Wieringa contributed tools and shared her expertise.
‘The portrait embodies him as a person: put together, bright and colorful and vibrant. He was very proud of his culture and heritage.’– East Kentwood senior Judith Khalihira
The artists displayed the portrait at A Glimpse of Africa, which was held downtown in August. Lyoya’s parents viewed it and met them. The plan is to ultimately give them the portrait.
The Steelcase grant was created in response to Lyoya’s killing, and Steelcase invited East Kentwood to create a project with the funds. Students said it’s a way to bring awareness to the incident.
“It happened in our own city, and because it has been happening around the world, it’s so important to us as a school and a community in Michigan – in Grand Rapids – to come together and make this piece into something everyone can see,” Adina said.
Adina’s parents are refugees from Bosnia, so she identifies with the challenges of being a refugee. “I understand immigration and how it’s a hard subject. Being able to do something for (Lyoya), because of what has been happening, I think it’s a good thing.”
Added senior Gabrielle Burns, “Being a student at East Kentwood, I come into contact with a lot of people from different cultures. I felt like it was necessary to reach out so I would understand more about Patrick’s situation and that of the people (working on the portrait) with me. Once we were working, we had lots of conversations about society.”
Teachers said they learned a lot from the project as well, and saw how students’ conversations were thoughtful and powerful.
“During the process, we have gained a lot already by listening to students talk about the tragedy that transpired in this city,” said Tran. “They were able to articulate and verbalize their feelings in a safe environment.”
A key area of discussion: that awareness and reform needs to focus on how people from different cultures react to being stopped by the police because there are different norms in different countries, she said.
Miller said those kinds of conversations need to continue.
“Kentwood in general is a cultural hub; we are very diverse. It’s not only important, it’s necessary to learn how to talk to other cultures. Also, it is not only important, it’s necessary to understand what trauma response looks like.”
Art is a great way to start discussion, Miller added. “Art can be — and usually is — one of the main forms of social justice, social response.”