The third Lamu Painters’ Festival takes place in February 2015; but as his way of affirming the serenity, safety and security of Lamu Island, the Festival’s founder Herbert Menzer just organised a Kenyan artists’ residency project that ran through most of November.
This generous patron of the arts brought five of Kenya’s finest artists to Lamu: four painters including Timothy Brooke, Peter Elungat, Peter Ngugi and Sophie Walbeoffe, plus one sculptor, Chelenge van Rampelberg.
The only non-Kenyan on site was the German sculptor Joachim ‘Joe’ Sauter who has been developing a project in African mahogany for the last few years with Herbert, based on the coral stone carriers of Mawira village.
A fraction of the fruits of their three-week residency went on display last Friday evening at the elegant Shela Sea Souq. A bigger batch of the oil paintings and water colours as well as the sculptures will go on display at One Off Gallery the last Sunday of January.
The former Hamburg restaurateur in Germany has been living in and loving Lamu Island since 2006; but as a way of combining his affection for the island and his affinity for the arts, Herbert launched his Lamu Painters Festival just four years ago.
In the past, the majority of those attending the festival have been European although Kenyan artists have always been involved, including painters like Patrick Mukabi, Justus Kyalo and Patrick Kinuthia.
But this year, out of his concern for the dire conditions the local community has been enduring, Herbert approached Carol Lees of One Off Gallery, suggesting she propose names of several local artists who might come to Shela to paint before February.
The other reason he hoped they’d come was to prove to the world that the Island is safe and completely separate from the mainland where there indeed has been strife and insecurity.
The biggest crisis Lamu island suffers from is the curfew that has profoundly affected the local economy, both in terms of tourism and local industries like fishing.
It’s the impact of this curfew on the everyday lives of the Lamu people that reverberates throughout the Kenyans’ residency work.
From Peter Ngugi’s Empty Boats series to Sophie Walbeoffe’s star-studded Fishing in the Curfew to Peter Elungat’s Padlocks of Lamu and Soul of the Island, the negative impact of the curfew on ordinary people is clearly manifest.
Even Chelenge’s sculpture of a coral stone carrier conveys a mournful mood, comparable to the carriers that Elungat captures in his uncharacteristic painting of physical labourers coming from Mawira village.
Undoubtedly, her sculpture was also inspired by Joachim Sauter’s 2.4 metre Mawira man, but where ‘Joe’s carriers reflect tremendous dignity and dynamic strength, Chelenge’s carrier embodies the strength but also seems dwarfed by the sense of struggle to survive that drives men to take up tasks that put bread on their family’s table.
But if life without tourists is a challenge, life without night fishing could be even worse for the locals. This is where Ngugi’s Empty Boats signify the pain of joblessness.
His painting of a man standing in his empty boat with an empty ‘red wallet’ hanging out of his pocket suggests a hopelessness that isn’t likely to end until the curfew goes away.
But perhaps most poignant of all the paintings in the Souq show is Peter Elungat’s Padlocks of Lamu. Like all his paintings it’s a beautiful work of art, deceptively so.
Initially, the musician looks like he is strumming a guitar but then you see the padlocks hanging from all the strings.
There’s a sense of futility about the piece that leaves an aching feeling for the people who Herbert and all the artists hope to help by their exposure of the curfew problem and advocacy of its immediate lifting.
Unfortunately, Timothy Brooke couldn’t endure the heat of the island, especially as both he and Sophie Walbeoffe served as the resident ‘plein air’ painters, meaning they painted out of doors.
Sophie solved the heat problem by painting from 6:30am until 10am; but Tim, who stays in the highlands near Mount Kenya, didn’t have time to adapt.
Hopefully, he’ll develop his Lamu sketches into paintings to be shown at One Off early next year.