Art of enjoying and conserving rock gems


An artwork from Kisumu Museum gallery: Conservation groups are raising the alarm over rock art vandalism. Photo/JACOB OWITI

From time immemorial, man has sought to make a mark on the face of the world. That is art.

One of the oldest forms of art is rock drawing, where in Africa the heritage has been in existence for thousands of years.

The Trust for African Rock Art (Tara), a non-governmental organisation, which operates in more than 30 countries in the continent, says the art “helps us understand how our ancestors thought, saw and portrayed their world.”

In pre-historic times, artistic cave men adorned walls with paintings of animals.

However, groups hooked to preserving this wealth is raising the alarm the heritage is in danger, with a pointer that more focus on the monetary value in drawings may be chopping and chiselling it to death.

There is also the danger of defacing priceless and ageless paintings — graffiti.

“There is no known connection between the contemporary art and the rock art that dates to so many years ago. One has to start by understanding art and know rock art was neither for beauty nor for sale but mainly for spiritual and cultural beliefs,” says David Coulson, the executive chairman of Tara.

Random comments by artists that Africans did not appreciate the value of drawings, carvings, and other types of creatives and were offering a pittance for the collections is being challenged.

It contrasts with the argument that the art was helping the modern man to understand how ancestors thought about and perceived the world, now suffering vandalism.

Said Kofi Annan, the then UN secretary general in 2005: “Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of humanity. As populations increase and vandalism and theft of Africa’s rock art are on the rise, this irreplaceable resource is highly threatened.”

He urged the continent to “take a new and more active role [to] save this cultural heritage before it is too late.”

Fumiko Ohinata, a programme specialist for culture at Unesco is walking in tandem:

“Rock art is one of the most unappreciated types of heritage locally. Understanding the importance of the art is not a subject that is taken seriously in Kenya hence the poor knowledge.”

Tara has identified vandalism cases including the 10,000- year-old engraving of two mythical creatures in Libya, which now has a crack at the top while other engravings are threatened by vibrations from oil exploration.

In western Kenya, an international restoration expert was called in to work on defacing paintings; the site is now a national monument.

Rock art theft, says the Trust, represents “serious threats” to heritages in Algeria and Morocco.

In western Chad, there is a bullet-ridden painting of a camel.

While rock art is not widely appreciated in Kenya, it attracts attention of historians and sociologists.

The art is concentrated in the northern and western parts of the country and areas like Laikipia, Lukenya, Kisii, Ukambani and at the Nairobi National Museum.

Tara, which was founded in 1996 by Coulson under the patronage of renowned archaeologist Mary Leakey, is focused on promoting awareness on rock art.

“We manage rock art and promote its conservation in 30 countries in Africa, Kenya being one of them. We survey sites and document rock art alongside establishing community projects that seek to promote this piece of cultural heritage,” said Gloria Borona, the trust’s manager for community projects.

Tara in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, the State institution mandated to preserve cultural and national heritage, is setting up community museums where the art is found and hold exhibitions to promote their use and conservation.

The ‘Dawn of Imagination’ exhibition, a two-year long parade that ran at the National Museum from March 2008, was one of the shows.

“By running such exhibitions, we link up with the government efforts towards conservation of the often neglected and vandalised form of art in Kenya,” said Ms Borona.

The missing link is the thread between present art forms and rock art as seen 7,000 years ago, she says.

Thanks to donor funding, Tara has been running campaigns to establish community museums and other programmes aimed at conservation.

The European Union has donated Sh14.5 million through the Tourist Trust Fund (TTF) towards promoting community tourist sites where rock art is found while Safaricom Foundation donated Sh1.2 million to help in restoring the Kikapel site in western Kenya under the National Museums of Kenya.

Apart from failing to appreciate the art, especially in the modern world where concentration is on the sciences, technology and business, vandalism is thriving partly because of failing to see the link between the genre and modernity.

People who visit rock art sites have been known to destroy the materials.

Tara asks tourists or people living in areas where the heritage is found “not to walk on, deface or touch rock art, or remove their parts.”

Public education

Says Ms Borona: “In the case of the Abasuba Community Peace Museum, the entry fees funds community projects while tour guide fees goes to the guides. We train them on how to guide the tourists to ensure the arts are not destroyed. This way, the community relates better with the art,” said Ms Borona.

The Abasuba museum on the Mfang’ano Island in Lake Victoria opened doors to the public in October 2008.

The Tara team says community involvement is one of the ways it is extending public education by helping residents to recognise the benefits including creating employment opportunities.

Conservation groups say giving residents a chance to experience the benefits of a project originating from their wealth is crucial to success.