Through art, Mawouko Aboussa tells the story of how he came to Concord

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  • Julianne Gadoury, John Hatab and Mawouko Aboussa install art pieces in the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball School of Art in Concord on Thursday. MELISSA CURRAN photos / Monitor staff

  • The Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball School of Art in Concord on Thursday, April 1, 2021. MELISSA CURRAN—Monitor staff

  • Artist Mawouko Aboussa installs his art in the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball School of Art in Concord on Thursday. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

  • Artist Mawouko Aboussa, 32, stands in the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball Jenkins School of Art where he will be exhibiting his work this month.

  • A mixed-media drawing done by artist Mawouko Aboussa at the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball School of Art in Concord.

  • A drawing done by artist Mawouko Aboussa at the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery at the Kimball School of Art in Concord on Thursday, April 1, 2021. MELISSA CURRAN—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/6/2021 5:14:15 PM

Mawouko Aboussa’s life story is on display at the Kimball Jenkins School of Art.

As a child, he and his family were forced to flee the violence in their home country of Togo. They lived as refugees in the neighboring country of Benin for over a decade before being granted asylum to come to America.

Now, Aboussa, 31, is the artist in residence at Kimball Jenkins, which gives him a solo exhibition in the Carolyn Jenkins Gallery to showcase his talent.

Aboussa’s art depicts his journey to America in nine pieces, split into three segments, he said.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while, thinking about how I’m going to put it together in order to make this exhibition come together,” he said.

The first three pictures show the process of departing from war-torn Togo, the next three show the escape itself and the dangers, and the last three depict the outcome of survival.

The goal of putting the experiences into a visual medium, Aboussa said, was “so that people can relate to it a little bit more closely.” The purpose of the show is “to have somebody understanding the feel and magnitude” of his life experiences.

Fleeing from Togo to Benin, Aboussa’s family encountered grave danger on the way. 

“Anything can go wrong at any time,” Aboussa said. “You’re not safe anywhere trying to escape the war.”

Aboussa remembers seeing bodies on the road, as well as people captured by militia and others being brutalized by rebels. “When you’re walking away you can still hear some of the stuff that’s going on behind you,” he said, adding that he could hear people being hurt as he and his family fled. “That was definitely something that stayed with me until today,” he said.

After making it across the border to Benin, Aboussa and his family stayed at a family friend’s house for two years, then moved into a refugee camp in the city of Cotonou.

In the refugee camp food was scarce and life was unpredictable. “Sometimes you’d wake up and see a dead body next to you,” he recalled, as people died of starvation or dehydration.

In 1999, after ten years at the camp, word began to spread about a program to get some of the refugees to more developed countries in Europe and North America, Aboussa said. The odds were better if a family had children or were young, and as the middle child of five, Aboussa’s family was given the chance to come to the United States.

After seeing American monuments like the Statue of Liberty on a broken television in the refugee camp, Aboussa and his siblings flew into New York City and saw them in real life.

“Now you’re at the center of everything that you could barely see, and now you could really see it, in extra 3D,” Aboussa said.

These experiences are captured in Aboussa’s art on display at Kimball Jenkins, but it is not the end of his story.

His family was placed in Concord, and getting used to American culture took a long time, Aboussa said. At first, he said, he and his siblings thought America was a paradise — he remembers being stunned by the fact that coins were discarded on the ground.

School, too, was a shining example of American goodness to Aboussa – he started halfway through seventh grade in Concord after not having good access to education in the refugee camp. “Man, you couldn’t ask for anything better, you go to school and you learn,” Aboussa said.

He also experienced racism and bullying, which he and his siblings found hard to understand at first. They didn’t understand Black and white American culture, and had to learn more on their own, after not being taught about the country’s history of racism extensively in school.

After graduating high school, Aboussa transferred between secondary institutions including Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University before finding his way to the Art Institute of New York City to study fashion design. Now, he’s back in Concord with his art on display.

“I was looking for some kind of opportunity like this,” Aboussa said. “People are starting to see my potential little by little now, but there are still roadblocks in my way,” he said. “I love this opportunity, I was looking for something like this as long as I can recall.”

The artist in residence partnership came about when Julianne Gadoury, executive director of Kimball Jenkins, brought Aboussa’s name forward for consideration to be the second artist in residence for the school of art.

“One of the things we really want to support in the community is new voices and supporting emerging artists and voices who may be underrepresented,” Gadoury said. Over the past year, Gadoury and others on the board had been working on restructuring the artist in residence program to do just that, and around the same time, Gadoury was introduced to Aboussa’s work.

“Here’s an artist who really fits all the criteria of what we’re looking for,” Gadoury remembers thinking. “We’re really happy to have this opportunity and really support emerging voices in Concord,” Gadoury added, and said that they plan to keep the artist in residence program going in the future as well. Aboussa’s run as artist in residence will continue until the fall, and nominations for the 2021-22 artist in residence will open over the summer.

As for Aboussa’s future, he hopes to do more work related to his music. “I want to present myself as an artist that gets up and speaks,” he said, “not just draws or demonstrates, but actually speaks.”

He also hopes to do more exhibitions like this one, having found that his art is a good outlet for all of his experiences and frustrations. “Your purpose is really to be something that you believe you are,” he said, “and do that to the fullest.”

For more information, visit Kimball Jenkins website, or go to see the exhibition, open now through the end of April, with an outdoor reception on April 17.

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