Monday, 27 February 2017



BY Margaretta wa Gacheru

The 4th Lamu Painters Festival broke records this year, and not just because no less than 40 artists from Kenya and overseas took part in festivities from February 2nd through the 20th. In past years, the numbers rarely exceeded 25 painters.

But there were several additional features to this year’s showcase of multimedia art, apart from painting. There was everything from sculpture (some assembled on the sandy shoreline) and live music (performed on indigenous instruments and staged on dhows as well as on solid ground) to audio-art and a wide assortment of other experimental works of contemporary art.

But the main change this year was the inclusion of the 1st Lamu Arts Festival which coincided with the final days of the Painters fete and featured greater involvement of Lamu County government, which among other things, facilitated the grand opening of the February 17th weekend at both the Lamu Fort and the large public courtyard in front of the fort. That was where the live music montage which attract huge numbers of locals as well as countless tourists and festival artists.

Among those who performed were Abaki Simba, with the headliners being the lovely Labdi Ommes and Idd Aziz accompanied by the masterful Michel Ongaro on acoustic guitar.

Diamond Beach also organized the Saturday ‘Sunset Sail’ for the visual artists who glided around the bay between Lamu and Manda Islands on five traditional dhows; the journey presented a picturesque finale for the painters. The dhows landed finally on Manda where the hotel provided pizza and a dance party that lasted till the wee hours of the festival’s final day.

But it was still Herbert Menzer, the German philanthropist and original master mind of both [Painters and Arts] Festivals who introduced the biggest changes to the Arts program. First off, he expanded the number of Kenyan artists attending the three week art residency, also known as the Painters Festival.

Among those who came were several who’d attended past festivals. They included Nadia Wamunyu, Zihan Kassam and Fitsum Berhe Woldebianos. But in addition, Peter Ngugi, Boniface Maina, Waweru Gichuhi, Nduta Kariuki, James Njoroge and Dale Webster also came and painted to their heart’s content.

Several local Lamu-based artists also took part and exhibited their works in the Lamu Fort, including Adam Musa and Anna Nordenskiold, the Swedish artist who’s been living in Lamu off and on since the 1980s.

And among the other Lamu-based exhibitors were more than a dozen young painters from Anidan orphanage who’d been beneficiaries of an art education program funded by the African Arts Trust. The program has enables a number of established Kenyan artists (from Patrick Mukabi and Onyis Martin to David Thuku and Dickson Kaloki) to come spend a month at Anidan teaching kids how to paint and draw. The orphanage itself was established by a Spanish philanthropist whose aim was to give disadvantaged Lamu children (not only orphans) a place to live, study and have opportunities to emerge from the poverty that plagues parts of the island.

The children’s art was downstairs while most of the Kenyan and European figurative artists’ works were showcased upstairs, filling the walls with fresh, sun-kissed views of the island—everything from dhows, donkeys and fishermen to colorful sunrises, sunsets, seafronts, and particularly people, be they children, ‘wazees’ or workers like the coral and limestone carriers being carved from Mahogany wood into larger-than-life sculptures by the German sculptor Joachim Sauter who continues carving with the goal of creating at least two more stone carriers. His hope is to eventually exhibit the seven around Kenya and abroad, with assistance from Herbert who sees Joachim in Shela at least twice a year since the sculptor’s workshop-studio is at Herbert’s latest construction site.

The site is where the former Hamburg restauranteur is building a magnificent new boutique hotel which he’s already named the Casbah. And like the previous four Swahili-styled structures that he’s designed and built since 2011, Herbert has included all the modern amenities that any traveler would wish to find in a five-star hotel with the charms of indigenous Swahili architecture and culture in the Casbah.

Sauter’s five brawny carriers were on display downstairs at the Fort in its open-air courtyard together with mainly works by artists who’d introduced a whole new component to the festivities. For this year, Herbert chose to invite several conceptual and experimental artists from abroad to participate in a six-week art residency in Lamu.

“I think Herbert invited us to work for six weeks [rather than three] because he knew conceptual art can take more time,” suggested the Portuguese artist Juliana Bastos Oliviera who had come from Hamburg, Germany as did two other conceptual artists, Marc Einsiedel and Felix Jung. The rest were either from Holland (Eveline van der Griend), Germany (Hartmut Beier), Russia (Svetlana Tiourina) or Belarus (Ekaterina Mitichkina).

All seven reflect a significant shift in Herbert’s focus, given that previously, his singular support had been for the so-called ‘plein air’ (open air or outdoor) painters, including the kind who frequent the summer ‘painters festivals’ found in Europe and which initially inspired him to introduce a similar festival to what’s become his second home, the fishing village of Shela in Lamu.

There’s little doubt that Herbert enjoyed having a younger crop of conceptual artists on hand at the festival. The clearest evidence of this was the way he quickly commissioned the two young experimental artists Marc and Felix to construct a ‘Whale bone Monument’ on the beach near to where a giant whale has gotten beached and died tragically.

Herbert had collected all the whale bones in hopes of finding artists who could create the whale monument to commemorate not only that one whale but all the endangered species whose lives have been disrupted, their environments damaged or destroyed by humans.

Marc and Felix completed the commission for Herbert but these two adventurous artists had others goals. Collecting their own array of ‘found objects’ around Lamu, their works occupied a whole corner of the courtyard, the most popular of which was a handmade kaleidoscope whose ever-changing color patterns, seen through a tiny peep hole, enthralled both children and adults who, on the opening day of the Arts Festival, had to stand in line to see shifting color combinations they had never encountered before.

One of the other experimental works that occupied the fort’s ground floor and amazed everyone who heard the vaguely familiar sounds coming apparently from a large circle-full of rusty tin cans hanging on one wall and called ‘Sound System’ was by Juliana Oliviera.

“I spent hours walking all over Lamu collecting random sounds from the streets to capture the sounds of people’s everyday lives,” said the artist.

“Then I edited the sound tape down to 17 minutes and assembled all the tin cans I could find into a circle meant to look like a giant speaker,” she added, noting that she ultimately put several miniature speakers behind the tins to give the illusion of sound seeping from the cans. The children were first baffled by her ‘Sound System’ but then charmed by the artist’s ingenuity.

But the ‘plein air’ painters were also adventurous in spite of being more figurative than conceptual in their artistic approaches. Among the veterans who’d attended the painters’ festival before were Jurgen (‘the Duke’) Leippert, Diedrik Vermeulen and Piet Groenendjik as well as Karin Voogd, Natalia Dik and Sybille Bross.

The new crop of European ‘plein air’ painters who came to Shela this year included the prolific Rob Jacobs (who seemed to capture nearly every picturesque view of the Island), Rob Akkerman, Claire Bianchi, Tatiana Lushnikowa and many others who came from not only Holland and Germany (as in previous years) but also from Russia, Belarus, Israel, the US, UK, Portugal and Sweden.

Virtually all the artists came at Herbert’s invitation since his original and ongoing aim has consistently been to spread the word and introduce European artists to the serene beauty of Lamu and especially Shela.

He’s still clearly committed to both sharing Shela and promoting tourism in Lamu since he’s sensitive to how the local people have suffered from the Western ‘travel alerts’ that have scared away tourists in the past. Those alerts haven’t stopped his coming several times every year irrespective of the so-called ‘threats’. On the contrary, they have compelled him to invest more into making the festivals a success.

One of the most important investments that Herbert made this past year was encouraging the professional British-Kenyan artist Sophie Walbeoffe to paint the island for a book, which she did. Her exquisite watercolors featured in ‘Lamu, an Artist’s Impression’ is the very one launched simultaneously with the opening of the 1st Lamu Arts Festival on Friday evening in a ceremony attended by Lamu County’s Minister of Culture and a broad cross-section of locals, artists and visitors who’d come to the Island especially for the festival.  

The accompanying text of Sophie’s beautiful book was written by two outstanding Kenya-based writers, Errol Trzebinski and Julia Seth-Smith.

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