Portrait of a Dog With Peanut Shells

Writer commissioned a portrait of his dog, Bill, from a Congolese artist.

Robert Draper sits with artist Dario in Kinshasa.


Editor's note: Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is "a city of art," writes Robert Draper in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. While researching his story in the chaotic capital, he met many artists who struggle to survive there—and commissioned a painting from one of them. Here's the story of the author, the artist, and the dog.

Dario is an artist who lives on the edge with panache. One day I visited his tiny studio and was taken with the dreamy introspection of his paintings. On impulse, I took out my iPhone, showed him a photo of my three-year-old dog, Bill, and asked how much he would charge to paint a portrait. Two hundred dollars, he said, with half up front as a deposit. I handed him the cash, which he discreetly tucked into a Bible on his shelf.

"I don't have money," he says. "But people like me are never discouraged. We're fighters. We die with honor."

We shook on it. Five days later, the painting was ready. It's a fairly good likeness and a fun portrait. Dario has some talent. He did study at the School of Fine Arts in Kinshasa. The problem for all artists in the Congo is that there's no market domestically to make money.

As added touches, Dario glued onto the canvas several seashells he'd found alongside the Congo River, as well as some peanut shells, knowing my fondness for the snack. The painting now hangs in my kitchen above Bill's food dish. Bill sniffed it and licked it because of the peanut shells.