Portrait of an Artist: Jozimar Matimano paints in the colors of freedom

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Manchester artist Jozimar Matimano. Photo/Becky Field

MANCHESTER, NH – Jozimar Matimano is a full-time laser print operator working second shift at a local manufacturing company and an art student, pursuing his future career as a fine artist. 

At 25, his determination and work ethic are admirable. But what is most remarkable is all that Matimano has endured to now be pursuing his American dream. 

He is a refugee who arrived in Manchester with his family of eight less than four years ago.

Matimano was living a different life in 2005, one of privilege in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He attended private school and lived in one of the three homes his parents owned. His father was a high school math and physics teacher. Then civil war broke out, and everything changed. A year later Matimano and his family were forced to sell their belongings and eventually were moved to a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda where they remained for the next decade. 

The Other Side: “This one in the living room, it’s called ‘The Other Side.’ I always use my art to express how I feel, what’s going on. […] It’s a self portrait too. So it’s called ‘The Other Side’ like, the other side of everything like let’s say you’ve heard about me, then for you to know much about me you have to come to me personally and know like open the door, open the curtain that people are telling you about me, and know really what’s beyond what they are telling you. Because people might say, ‘hey, Jozimar is crazy,’ something like that, I don’t know (laughs) something like that. So like, you try to like, I try to like express what’s going on.
See more examples of Matimano’s work below.

In 2016 the United Nations assisted his family in finding a permanent home in the U.S. – a land of opportunity known only to Matimano through movies and pop-culture, a destination with great promise for a young man with big dreams. 

Manchester was their new home, a longtime major refugee-receiving city for refugee resettlement over the years. Although he grew up speaking French thanks to his private school education, and learned English – and several other languages while living in the refugee camp – his language skills needed work if he was to get his high school diploma and enroll in college.

In March of 2018 Matimano was accepted into the NH Job Corps Center. 

Finding Job Corps was transformational for Matimano, who loved painting and sculpting as a hobby, but recognized the need to get an education and a career to help support his parents and five younger siblings. Matimano obtained his Penn-Foster diploma along with certificates in both Security and Advanced Manufacturing in July of 2019, just one month after receiving his Green Card – a banner year for him and for his family, who depend on him as driver, interpreter and their financial support.  

A long journey to a new life

Slightly damaged, but one of the few photos Jozimar Matimano has from his childhood that he treasures.

Before arriving in the U.S. Matimano had never painted, although his father had an interest in art and passed down his talent to his son. Art became an important pastime for Matimano while living in the refugee camp.

When Matimano first started dabbling in painting here, he says he tried his hand at a still life of flowers – but flowers have never been Matimano’s strong suit. He prefers portraits and often uses his own image as the subject of his work that combines realism with symbolism. For one thing, he’s always available to pose when he needs a model, he says with a broad smile. But also, it’s important to him to authentically paint what he knows. 

In that way his success in art derives from his honest and emotional portrayal of the often harsh realities of life for Black people in America, his identity as a refugee fleeing conflict in Africa, and the singular wisdom that can only shine through the brush strokes of a talented artist.

Before the war he recalls growing up in Kiwanja, which he describes as “halfway between a city and a village,” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His early childhood was a happy one characterized by playing with his friends – one where there was plenty of room for his imagination to grow. They used what they had – mainly clay made from the dust and empty boxes – to create toys and other playthings.

“We used to go and make, you know, dust – here you don’t have it – it’s like clay. And we used to make things out of those. I played with boxes and made houses from them,” he says. 

“We used to make phones out of clay. It was fun. Making houses out of the boxes and cars out of  – how can I explain it – you know maize? Like corn?” Matimano searches his mind for the right word. A polyglot who speaks seven languages from his experience living in the refugee camp for so long with other kids from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, and Sudan, he finally settles on the right word, “The stalk. We used to make cars out of that.”

Fleeing civil war

Before leaving the Congo, Matimano recalls having the freedom to run and play with his friends after school, and occasionally snacking on a mango they would stealthily pick from a neighbor’s tree.

The freedom he felt throughout his childhood quickly faded though, when the conflict in DRC escalated. Matimano recounts kidnappings for ransom being a regular occurrence and even confides witnessing a shooting take place in front of him. Despite the trauma inflicted on himself and his loved ones, according to Matimano, he has made peace with those who have incited violence in his home country, and doesn’t see the sense in war, genocide or passing that hatred down to the next generation.

“It’s really traumatic but at a certain point, you have to let it go. We have this conflict in Congo, like Congolese don’t like Rwandan, because they say that Rwandans come and try to take their country. I grew up hating them and always feeling like maybe I can kill them, but at a certain point I was like, ‘what’s the purpose…  to hate the children of them?’ Like what’s the purpose? What’s the point?” explains Matimano.

Jozimar Matimano, left, with a friend at the refugee camp that was his home for 10 years. Courtesy Photo

His family arrived at Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda where they remained long enough for his parents to have his two youngest siblings, bringing the family to a total of eight.

In 2016, the Matimanos were finally approved for resettlement in the U.S. The entire resettlement process took nearly three years. At one point he says they thought they would be sent to Sweden, which disappointed Matimano. As a kid he absorbed all he could about American culture, and got lost in films like “Rambo,” and “Coming to America.” 

“I felt like America has the better life of all places that you could live in, in the whole world,” he says.

He was 21 when the family finally packed their bags and made it to Manchester, moving to an apartment in center city where his bedroom doubles as an art studio. Since then, Matimano has navigated adult life in an unfamiliar country with poise and determination. 

Jozimar Matimano, left, with Congressman Chris Pappas at the 2019 annual NH Congressional Art Competition. Courtesy Photo

“I was the best English speaker in my family so it was up to me to communicate and try to explain everything, which was hard. But with time it adjusted and I found out that everything was getting good,” Matimano says.

Initially the family was approved for food stamps and Medicaid, and his parents received assistance in the form of $200 every other week, not enough to cover all of their living expenses.

“I was the first one who found a job. We reached here in October and by January I was working. It was called RCD Components, that’s where I used to work, ” says Matimano.

Matimano’s boss at RCD Components, Maria Grisanzio, took an interest in him, encouraging him to earn his high school diploma.

“We developed a friendship over time. She stayed in touch with me and she helped me to buy some stuff when I had my first exhibition here in Manchester. You know the Art Jam? I used to do that, in like 2017-2018,” says Matimano.

Matimano’s determination to succeed has been fueled by many who recognized his natural artistic talent and ability to quickly learn and thrive in a new environment, where the possibilities and opportunities seemed endless.

Matimano entered NH Job Corps Center in 2018 and graduated in July of 2019.  “That’s how I ended up at Tecomet. Actually I’m in an apprenticeship program. I won an award – Outstanding Student of 2019,” Matimano says, with a note of pride in his voice.

Jozimar Matimano at work as a laser print operator at Tecomet, a medical device manufacturer in Manchester, where he started an apprenticeship a year ago.

Job Corps opened the doors

Working in manufacturing provides financial stability and a foundation on which he is able to build the life he’s always dreamed of, as an artist.  He attends art school where he is fine-tuning his natural talent in sculpture and painting.  

He has become well known for his talent and determination.

Shortly before graduating from Job Corps in May of last year, Matimano was invited by Congressman Chris Pappas to submit a piece of his artwork to the annual NH Congressional Art Competition for students. That piece is currently on loan and displayed at the Congressman’s downtown Manchester office. 

With the help of his Career Transition Counselor at Job Corps, Matimano earned a small scholarship at the Currier Art Museum, where he took a painting class while working. Soon after he toured, applied for and was accepted to the NH Institute of Art in Manchester, which has recently merged with New England College in Henniker. He earned a scholarship, which covers 60 percent of his tuition, and based on his manufacturing skills, he also landed a great apprenticeship as a machinist, assembling medical devices for Tecomet in Manchester, where he continues to work to cover the rest of his school expenses.

While juggling family, job and school responsibilities is not easy, Matimano sees it as an interesting challenge along with the greatest gift of freedom to do so. He openly attributes his ability to do all of that to Job Corps, which gave him the opportunity and tools to succeed with a combination of excellent technical training, determination, self-discipline and focus. His appreciation for that opportunity was reiterated recently when he served as a guest speaker for a Virtual Community Relations Council Conference at Job Corps. 

Jozimar Matimano at work in his bedroom art studio. Photo/Becky Field

Finding his voice as an artist

He says his formal art training has helped him discover his true voice as an artist. 

“I had the drawing talent, but when I started with painting at first, I wasn’t so good. I started with painting [a still life] of a flower. Actually that flower – it stayed in my mind. It still stayed in my mind. I started painting it and I didn’t like it. I gave up that same day,” explains Matimano.

But by the next day he was ready to paint again, and Matimano quickly discovered his calling in the form of raw portrayals of the racism, unequal wealth distribution and heavy-handed policing that he has come to understand as part of American culture. His paintings critique the obvious and subtle power dynamics underlying a racist system.

“The thing that I always do is expressing how I feel in America with my art. I express how I feel or interpret how other people feel in life, like what I’ve been through, what’s going on in the society with my art,” Matimano relates.

With paintings ranging from a portrait of one of his childhood friends peering out at the viewer from a background in the shape of Africa, to a depiction of actor/singer Childish Gambino from the music video for “This is America,” Matimano’s art is versatile in its emotional and political portrayals of life. About Childish Gambino, Matimano relates, “I like that guy. He’s just American. He feels free.”

An art show planned for the spring of 2020 was postponed due to COVID-19, so Matimano has found other ways to gain exposure for his work. He recently started experimenting with printing his paintings onto T-shirts and would like to eventually sell them as a way of generating more income.

Above: Promotional flyer for “Finding Home” which featured portraits and stories of 40 New Americans living in NH. To learn more or to order a copy of the book, click here.

He was also among 40 New Americans featured in a hardcover book, Finding Home, recently published by Concord photographer Becky Field, which also includes a synopsis of his journey and pursuit of a career in art. Proceeds from the book go to support organizations that work directly with refugee and immigrant families, according to Field

As a new American, Matimano has taken full advantage of the opportunities he has manifested for himself as a young adult. Since his arrival he has not only shown his younger siblings how to survive life in a new country, but also how to thrive. Even more, in his raw interpretations and untamed expressions of life in the U.S. through his art, he has shown us all what it means to be truly American – what it means to be free.

⇒ Find more of Jozimar Matimanor’s work on Instagram @M.Jozimar_art and Facebook facebook.com/jozimar.matimano.

Reporter Carol Robidoux and Marcia Burns of Job Corps contributed to this story.

Gallery of work by Jozimar Matimano

On Childish Gambino, the subject of this painting: “I like that guy. He’s just American. He feels free.

The Concept – “My message behind my artwork is like reality – what’s going on in society. Not only in America, even all over the world. But if you see this painting, like somebody is trying to speak and he’s handcuffed but he can’t speak, but just the expression will tell you that he’s trying to say something. I don’t know why I chose the name ‘The Concept,’ because it’s like a reality that is not seen, you know? Like it’s a day-to-day life that we are stuck in that you can’t get out of and even if you get out you have to like go back through to it to do it. We need money. And money, I don’t know if it needs us, you know? You have no choice.”

“This one here it’s called ‘Love It Or Leave It.’ The noose, the American flag…  it’s kind of like the Colin Kaepernick case, something like that, about Black suppression. It’s about what’s going on and how people feel.”

“This one is called ‘A Moment in Life’, this is the neighbor’s niece and my sister, and it’s a moment in life, a time where everything stops. That time of laughter. You feel free, like there is no such thing as hate, racism, religion – it’s just, if you can tell in their faces, there’s that smile of innocence, like you just feel free. That’s a moment. A moment that maybe when they grow up they will never be friends again. They will never see each other maybe or they might hate each other or they might turn against each other. I don’t know. It’s just, in that moment, that’s the moment. The blue background, it’s kind of like peace. You know, that blue, it’s just full of peace. When I paint blue I always feel peace, especially that blue, phthalo blue.”