Refugee brings colour to South East

A Zambian refugee camp seems an unlikely environment to foster an art career, but for one Mount Gambier man, that is where it all began.

Sep 10, 2021, updated Nov 09, 2021
Artist Sadiki Kamundele pictured among his limestone sculptures in his home workspace. He was picked for the UniSA Lifelong Learning Award at the 2021 Regional Showcase Awards. Photo: Gabrielle Duykers.

Artist Sadiki Kamundele pictured among his limestone sculptures in his home workspace. He was picked for the UniSA Lifelong Learning Award at the 2021 Regional Showcase Awards. Photo: Gabrielle Duykers.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sadiki Kamundele is a skilled sculptor and painter, who works in a variety of mediums.

Inspired by traditional and modern African art styles, his pieces represent significant political and religious moments from history, as well as his lived experiences.

The 39-year-old said his passion for art first began in primary school.

“I loved drawing,” Kamundele said.

“I focused and continued to practice but I couldn’t find someone who could teach me properly.”

Sadiki working on the Great Wall of Cultures mural in Mount Gambier. Photo: Anelia Blackie.

Not long after, he became fascinated with mural painting after seeing a man working on a large piece in the Congo.

He asked the man to mentor him, but was told he would need to buy paint and brushes – neither of which his family could afford.

However, the budding young artist persevered and continued to refine his talent with pencils and paper.

Amid ongoing conflict in the Congo, Kamundele and his family fled the country on foot and sought refuge in the Mehaba refugee settlement in neighbouring Zambia in 2003.

Little did they know it would be their home for the next 13 years.

It was during this time Kamundele met specialists from Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment (FORGE), who visited the site regularly to teach new skills.

“You could learn an instrument or journalism,” Kamundele said.

“But when I saw you could do painting I knew I needed to focus on that.”

He began painting murals and his natural talent saw him selected to spearhead local art initiatives.

“All the projects for that camp – to draw for schools and hospitals and give them messages about the environment or stopping violence – I drew those pictures,” Kamundele said.

A clear autodidact, he also picked up the art of wood carving after watching others practice the craft.

“If I see someone doing something, even if not shown to me I can (develop) the skill myself,” Kamundele said.

“When I look at (a piece of) wood, sometimes I can see the image for that piece of wood.”

Kamundele said expanding his expertise was crucial in finding purpose amid such uncertain times.

“When I was sitting in the refugee camp I started to think (about) what I could do there to survive,” he said.

“To get that chance to move out of refugee camp and go abroad is a small chance.

“I didn’t think it would happen for me.

“I knew I had to prepare my future and do many things because they could help me one day.”

During his later years in the camp, he began visiting Lusaka in Zambia and found another artist from the Congo who agreed to employ him as a freelance artist.

“It gave me the money to help my family, so I continued to work with him when I could,” Kamundele said.

Based more than 700-kilometres from the Mehaba refugee camp, he lived with friends when he could find work, and returned to the camp when there was none.

This continued for years before Kamundele, his wife, and three children were finally selected to begin the resettlement process and move to Australia in 2015.

His first year in Mount Gambier was spent undertaking the TAFE Adult Migrant English Program and working anywhere he could.

This included stints in Coonawarra vineyards, a meat processing plant, and milking cows on dairy farms, before securing a full-time job in a timber mill where he works today.

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Sadiki’s wood carvings often portray Australian and African emblems. Photo: Gabrielle Duykers.

Upon arriving in Mount Gambier, staff at the local Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) quickly learned of his many talents and helped build his reputation through community art opportunities.

His first project was for a local radio station, painting their mobile caravan, used for live broadcasts at public events.

Kamundele proceeded to paint murals for schools, shop fronts and worked alongside artist Jeremy Ievins to create the $50,000 Great Wall of Cultures Mural at the Mount Gambier Railway Lands sponsored by the MRC.

Word spread of his bubbly and friendly demeanour, and he continued to meet other local artists.

A particularly special friendship formed between Kamundele and 96-year-old author Kelvin Smibert, who brought him along to the local Men’s Shed.

“He told me there were people there who could help me with my wood carving, and (that) if I went my English might also get better,” Kamundele said.

Smibert brought Swahili to English translation books along to the shed each week, and Sadiki grew increasingly confident in his conversational abilities.

The Men’s Shed introduced him to sculpting with limestone and Australian woods, which he initially found challenging as they were softer than the African woods he was accustomed to.

Kamundele also said he struggled to carve without his traditional African tools.

“People here work from machines but I didn’t know how to use them,” he said.

“Kelvin helped me and told me to draw my (old) tools on paper, and one day I came to the shed and he’d made me the chisel I’d drawn.”

Kamundele used his improved sculpting skills to create a collection of wood and limestone pieces for an exhibition at the Riddoch Art Gallery in 2018. There he sold every piece, and a number of his newer works can be found on display today.

His work predominantly features portrayals of the human form and native animals depicted in wood carvings, limestone sculptures, and portraits.

Kamundele conceded the current art market was proving less fruitful.

“You can have the motivation to work hard, but it’s difficult to keep producing (art) if you don’t sell anything,” he said.

Kamundele said he hoped to one day resume his artistry full time and open a studio.

“I need to move forward with my art,” he said.

“I know this is the work I need to do, I know this is my passion.”

Sadiki will begin a new art project next month, painting depictions of different cultures on stobie poles throughout Mount Gambier.

To learn more about Kamundele Sadiki’s art, email [email protected].

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