LAMU ARTS FESTIVAL STRENGTHENS TOURISM IN KENYA
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 27 February 2017)
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.
But there were several additional features to this year’s showcase of multimedia art, apart from painting.
The main one 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 including their facilitating the grand opening on the February 17th weekend at both the Lamu Fort and the large public courtyard in front of the fort. That was where the Diamond Beach Hotel provided a marvelous live music montage which attract huge numbers of locals as well as the 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 on five traditional dhows that presented a picturesque finale for the painters. The dhows landed finally on Manda Island where the hotel provided pizza and a dance party 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 like Nadia Wamunyu, Zihan Kassam and Fitsum Berhe Woldebianos. But in addition, Peter Ngugi, Boniface Maina, Waweru Gichuhi, James Njoroge and Dale Webster also came and painted to their heart’s content.
Several local Lamu-based artists took part and exhibited their works in the Lamu Fort, including more than a dozen young painters from Anidan orphanage who’d been beneficiaries of an art education program funded by the African Arts Trust which has enables established Kenyan artists to come spend a month at Anidan teaching kids how to paint and draw.
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 into larger-than-life sculptures shaped by the German sculptor Joachim Sauter.
Sauter’s five brawny carriers were on display downstairs in the open-air courtyard inside the Fort 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, outdoor) painters, the kind who frequent the summer painters festivals found in Europe and which inspired him to introduce a similar festival to what’s become his second home, the fishing village of Shela in Lamu. At the same time, his initial design was to also introduce European artists to the serene beauty of Lamu.
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 in 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 delightful works of exquisite watercolors featured in ‘Lamu, an Artist’s Impression’ was the very one launched simultaneously with the opening of the 1st Lamu Arts Festival. The accompanying text of Sophie’s book was written by two outstanding Kenya-based writers, Errol Trzebinski and Julia Seth-Smith.