Larissa Doll | Just Under the Surface

Canadian poet Margaret Atwood has a poem called This is a Photograph of Me. In it, she describes a photo of an apparently serene landscape featuring a lake. Then jarringly, the poet/persona continues:

(The photograph was taken the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where precisely, or to say how large or small I am: the effect of water on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough, eventually you will be able to see me.)

It’s this kind of jarring incongruity that exists between the exquisite surfaces and the stories that lie (metaphorically) just beneath them in the Congo paintings of Peace River artist Larissa Doll.

Mama et Parapluie, Larissa Doll

Take the painting Cloud, for instance. The sun sparkling off the mirror-like surface of the water creates a sense of tranquility, the dark cloud above it promising life-giving rains. The view is of Lake Kivu, a large body of water shared by two troubled east African countries: Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lake Kivu is the source of drinking water and a place for washing and swimming for many Congolese. It is also a place where poisonous gases released by lava flows from a volcanic eruption seep out of the lake along the shorelines. And it is also a place where, in 1998, the bodies of Africans killed in the country’s ongoing wars were left floating. It is a mass grave.

Doll lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo for two years between 2004 and 2006. She was there to paint on the strength of one Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant, and two more from the Eliza- beth Greenshields Foundation. The Congo is a country that is still at war after more than a decade of ethnic atrocities, though much of the world has forgotten about it. Doll says with both candidness and understatement, “the Congo is definitely … hard.” This is the simple truth that contains the deeper, more difficult truths.

While she was in Africa, Doll says, she had to focus on what was positive in order to survive. Her paintings from this time show not only the beauty of Lake Kivu, but also the beauty of women and children engaged in unexceptional activities. Doll is primarily a figurative painter and her paintings, like many figurative paintings, tell stories. What may be different about her works is the stories they do not tell; the context behind the canvases.

Mama et Bebe, Larissa Doll

Doll’s Mama et Bebe, for instance, depicts a beautiful baby happily nursing at his or her young mother’s breast. As uni- versal as this daily miracle is, in the story of this mother and this baby, Doll says, “it was truly miraculous.” The mother is a woman who was raped by a soldier in an everyday – though nonetheless horrific – use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The baby is the result of that act. The wom- an was disowned by her husband and, as in many cases like this, might have disowned the baby in turn. But she didn’t. She chose to keep the baby, and is shown in a mo- ment of bonding; choosing family over hatred.

Mama et Parapluie shows a Bantu woman in a candid moment at the market, shading herself from the equatorial sun. Doll comments simply: “You can see by the expression on her face that she’s been through a lot.”

In Girls, two girls from the Inuka orphanage where Doll volunteered are caught in a candid and intimate moment, feed- ing each other and just being kids. However briefly, they were able to put the violence they’d witnessed, the illness and the death and the abandonment they’d known, aside. Given the context, the normal becomes transcendent.

Mama Laughing, Larissa Doll

Doll describes Mama Laughing as “an image of beauty.” Among the Congolese, fullness in a woman is considered to be highly desirable. More importantly, the painting captures the paradox of life flourishing in the midst of danger and vio- lence. Perhaps out of necessity, the Congolese “really live in the moment,” says Doll. If they are crying, they are not dis- creetly sniffling; they are wailing. But if they are happy, their laughter comes straight from the belly, full and round and uninhibited. They live life in extremes. In extremis.

It is in the painting Mama et Enfant, however, that Doll really creates an image of hope. This work depicts a 13-month- old girl who had been the victim of rape a few months prior. Her mother, having turned away for a moment to look after her other children, lost the baby to an armed militant. At the time of the incident, the mother left her bigger children to look after each other and walked many kilometres to the nearest hospital to get medical care for her baby. According to Doll, “when they arrived at the hospital the girl was only able to hold her bladder for a minute. Following surgery she was able to hold her bladder for three minutes. The doctors called it a miracle.”

In the painting adult and child are shown in a quiet moment, the mother doing up her little one’s shoe. As Doll describes it: “The infant leaned into her mother’s neck and clasped tightly to her shirt. A simple gesture loaded with truth, strength and optimism. It is a closed relationship where the two figures are intertwined….” Neither one’s face is visible; both have their backs to us. Together they form a closed circle. Doll felt that in depicting them this way, she was protecting them; giving them back to each other, refusing to re-victimize them.

Girls, Larisa Doll

Many of us grew up seeing images of African children alone and dirty, nearly naked, bellies distended, flies at their eyes. Designed to elicit the compassion of the more developed world, they nonetheless portrayed Africans as victims. Doll’s Mama et Enfant, on the other hand, shows Africans taking care of themselves; taking control in small ways in the face of horrendous circumstances. It gives at least these two Af- ricans (and they are actual individuals known to the painter) back their dignity. It diminishes those of us in the western world to the status of fellow human beings, rather than set- ting us up for the inevitable fall in the role of saviours; or worse yet, casting us as voyeurs of other people’s misery. “In the Congo series,” Doll writes, “it was important for me to empower each character…. My goal was to depict these figures as survivors, triumphing over tragedy and despair. I wanted to portray these women and children as symbols of strength and resilience. They should be celebrated for their strengths rather than pitied for their hardships.”

Doll’s paintings from her time in the Congo celebrate humanity in the midst of the most wretched inhumanity; but this, of course, is only part of the truth of her experience there. These paintings are exquisitely beautiful and humane. In contrast with the context that generated them, they seem almost like a denial of the larger truth.

One could also say, though, that they are like the planks of a life raft Doll fashioned for herself in order to survive the desperation of life in the Congo. Now that she is home in Canada, she is processing the more difficult aspects of her experience. Three years after returning, she says: “Now I feel like I’m ready. I can go back and paint the rest of the story.”

The new work will be “heavier,” she says. There will be more of the difficult things she saw and lived; the darkness as well as the light of her experience in Africa. There will be more of herself in it, she says.

But then in a way the artist is always in her paintings, like the drowned poet floating just under the surface. If you look long enough, eventually you’ll be able to see her.

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