For most of his life, Burlington artist Jean Luc Dushime, 32, has struggled with the notion of boundaries. Born in Rwanda, he was a young boy when his country’s national and tribal boundaries were ravaged by genocide. To escape the violence, he and his family walked more than a thousand miles over six months through the equatorial jungle, crossing the boundaries of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. After the better part of seven years in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, Dushime and his family came to Burlington in November 2004, with the assistance of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Since then, the barriers Dushime has confronted have been not national but internal, and he has traversed them using the art of photography. “For the last nine years,” he says, “I have been breaking through the boundaries in my head, challenging myself to see what I can do.”
Dushime’s photographic work explores issues of cultural displacement and the difficulties of forging community bonds in strange new places. “Physical boundaries and internal boundaries are all linked,” he says. “People don’t realize that physical experiences have repercussions on our internal lives.”
Though it took some time to adapt to his new community in Vermont, Dushime has become exceptionally active in the Burlington art scene. His current projects are several: photographs of recent immigrant farmers featured at the exhibit “Of Land and Local,” which opened at BCA Center last Friday; a photographic exhibit, “The Hands of Hope,” opening this month at Burlington’s New Moon Café; a series of photos documenting his recent trip to India; a project with local Somali high school girls about their betrothal at young ages; and a short video with the members of the Diversity Rocks International Youth Group.
Linking all these works is the notion of recognizing and celebrating community of many kinds: local, regional, ethnic, national and artistic. “A community without art is an invisible community,” Dushime says, “so I ask myself, ‘How can I use my art to help people be recognized in society in a healthy way?’”
Diversity Rocks is a Burlington-based organization made up of young men and women from around the world — Bhutan, Tibet, Burundi and other nations — who have immigrated to Vermont and created a safe space to discuss issues important to them. A representative of the group recently addressed the United Nations General Assembly, where “I Am the World,” the video Dushime made with Diversity Rocks, was shown; the video has also won an award from the International Day of Peace organization. “I Am the World” is part PSA, part testimonial and part collaborative video experiment about discovering the many facets of one’s identity.
Though much of his work features people whose voices are not often heard, Dushime also uses his photographic and video work to come to terms with his own past. In a TedX talk that he delivered in Pacific Palisades, Calif., on June 29, Dushime speaks of forgiveness, which he says is central to his artwork. His ethnic heritage is Hutu — coincidentally, the same as that of the aggressors in Rwanda’s genocide. “It took me a long time to forgive myself, and to forgive those who had abused me along the way, and those who wanted to kill me during the walk,” he says.
A recent trip back to Rwanda enabled him to find that forgiveness by conversing with locals about how their own lives have progressed since the genocide. “I don’t dwell on the past,” Dushime says. “I just let life happen.”
He aspires to have his art play a part in ending violence, and in helping others find reconciliation. “I want to make art that challenges people to talk more about the past, the present, and maybe share their hopes,” Dushime says. “My hope is to have a place in that history.”