Leslie Lumeh's artwork helped curb the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia and beyond
Lumeh's work has always been politically charged and he went into exile in Ivory Coast
He returned home in 2005 and opened Monrovia's first gallery after the civil war.
Artist Leslie Lumeh’s images have always been politically charged but he never dreamed they’d one day save lives.
When the Ebola crisis hit Liberia two years ago, the artist was among those called upon by Unicef to develop posters on how the public could protect themselves.
“There was a need to educate the people …” he explains.”You needed a lot of images, drawings, that illustrated how to keep oneself protected from the virus.”
“We were grateful that we were able to do something that people were able to use to save so many lives.”
His imaginative posters went far beyond Liberia, to Guinea as well as Sierra Leone in helping to raise awareness. In the months after Liberia was declared Ebola free, Lumeh continued to document how the country was coping.
“I couldn’t escape the fact that the virus caused a devastation in this country,” he laments. “I couldn’t escape that fact but what I did was show it in a more subtle manner.”
Born in Dambala, Cape Mount, the self-taught artist began his career during the heat of Liberia’s civil war in 1989. The decision was largely inspired by his elder brother Ande, who’d left their small town to dream big as an artist in the capital, Monrovia.
“He used to send me crayons, water colors…drawings that he was doing in the city,” recalls Lumeh. “I’ll look on the page. I’ll see illustrated by Ande Lumeh. I’ll be very happy and say I have to reach this point.”
Back then as a young artist, Lumeh sought to make a difference with his art by turning the atrocities he witnessed during civil war into paintings. Such a brave decision led to unwanted attention from the authorities resulting in exile to nearby Ivory Coast.
But undeterred, since his return in 2005, he has continued to instigate change - back in 2008 he opened Art of the Heart, the first art gallery of its kind in the capital. In 2010, he established the Liberian Visual Arts Academy (LivArts). The after school program provides free art education to Liberian youths. With classes of around 25 pupils, students meet and discuss the challenges they see in their communities and find ways to draw these creatively.
Lumeh’s scope has evolved beyond drawing and painting into social illustrations as a cartoonist for local newspaper the Daily Observer. He believes art can be used to affect real change.
“The arts is very paramount to the growth of the economy and to solve other issues, other problems in the country,” says Lumeh.
His images resonate as far wide as France, and the U.S. through international exhibitions such as “Lumieres d’Afriques” which began in Paris in 2015 before traveling to Abidjan, Ivory Coast earlier this year.
“I paint scenes and subjects that people can relate to,” he says. “You see it, you understand it, you know it, you feel it.”