This year’s Lamu Arts Festival had a myriad of artistic attractions. Running from February 21 to 24, the four-day festival, was technically the third, but Lamu has been holding international arts fêtes since 2011 when the first Lamu Painters Festival was held and painters came from as far as Europe.
This year’s festival, endorsed by the county Ministry of Tourism and Culture, was coordinated by Rachel Feiler of Diamond Beach Resort and Herbert Menzer who is the patron of the arts festivals since 2011.
Meanwhile, there were visual arts exhibitions galore all around the island, some held in galleries, others in the open air but all attracting crowds of both locals and international visitors who had come to Lamu.
For instance, at the Wildebeeste Workshop Gallery, Yony Waite held a solo exhibition of her paintings, prints and tapestries that amplified the beauty and diversity of the island. Baraka Gallery displayed paintings by Helen Feiler and photography by Corrie Wingate who also coordinates artist residencies at Anidan Orphanage on the island.
The exhibition was accompanied by a live performance of classical music by the Nairobi String Quartet who also performed at the star attraction of the festival, the World Premiere of the monumental ‘Maweni Carriers’ inside the courtyard of Lamu Fort.
There was art all over Lamu town and Shela village. For instance, in a tiny dress shop on the edge of Shela beach, a lovely ‘pop-up’ exhibition of hand-pressed mono-printed leaves by Portuguese artist Juliana Oliveira was held the night before the unveiling of Joachim Sauter’s eight majestic three-meter high African Mahogany wood sculptures at the fort.
But it was the eight Maweni carriers that held centre stage at this year’s arts festival. Developed out of an idea Herbert had after working with the carriers whose coral stones he has been using to build no less than six elegant Swahili-style homes, all equipped with modern amenities but retaining the feel of old Lamu.
Herbert had proposed the idea to Joachim who he had invited to the first painters festival. Initially, Joachim was hesitant even to come to Africa. But once he spent several weeks sculpting at Shela and then traveling across the bay to meet the Maweni carriers, he was deeply impressed with the work these men do.
By 2012, he was working on the first Maweni carrier which he sculpted at the harbour as a way of familiarising the men with the work that he did. That first one is still there at the harbour’s edge.
After that, Joachim has come every year to work with Herbert and the carriers.
“I’ve come for six weeks before Christmas and six weeks after,” says the Stuttgart-based sculptor who admits he wasn’t always easy persuading carriers to work with him.
Ultimately, he found seven men who agreed to be photographed, sketched and even to seat in Joachim’s studio so that he could sculpt finishing touches on each man’s face.
Joachim and Herbert had planned to première the seven sculptures in February this year and even booked with the National Museums of Kenya to exhibit in the Fort’s courtyard. But towards the end of 2018, Joachim was feeling the work was incomplete. In a dream, he says he remembered a woman carrying firewood. She made him think twice about having one carrier be a woman.
“One can’t really talk about Africa without speaking of the woman,” he says. Fortunately, his friend Achieng’ Andabwa volunteered herself to be his model.
So now, at Lamu Fort the one woman carrier stands at the centre of the courtyard surrounded by the other seven. It’s truly a tremendous feat, but not just because African mahogany is such a hard wood. It’s because what Joachim’s created is a magnificent ensemble of larger-than-life art.