Artists at work outside in the elements are often – correctly – labeled “street artists”, and pass their time sketching kitsch for tourists in big cities. But nothing could be farther from how Herbert Menzer, a wild and wacky German visionary/ real estate developer/accidental politician/friend to all, envisioned the first annual Lamu Painters Festival.
Menzer’s idea was that artists, mainly from European Realist and Impressionists styles, would capture en plein air the essence of the Islamic island and Swahili life, providing a reminder – and perhaps a record – of Lamu’s value as a UNESCO world heritage site as it rapidly becomes Westernized. An avid art collector, he arranged for nineteen professional painters from Germany, Netherlands, and Kenya to express Lamu’s traditional culture and natural beauty through their artwork.
Artists who had never set foot on the African continent – let alone on Lamu – met all manner of logistical challenges — getting their paint tubes through airport security, navigating the cat and donkey-jammed Byzantine alley ways, coping with sand flung onto their works-in-progress and the incomprehensible Swahili language. No less, though, were they delighted to find a variety of exotic subject matters; palms on sugar-white sand dunes, 15th century Swahili architecture, impenetrable Burka-clad khol-eyed women, donkey and cat-clogged Byzantine alleys, Herbert Menzer, and the Lamu District Commissioner.
But did these artists, most familiar with stormy or wintry landscapes wrought in “moderate” tones, feel they captured the Equatorial East African light, warmth and sultriness of it all?
Dutch painter, Piet Groenendijk, stuck to the subdued European hues, worrying that turquoise skies and peachy sunsets could become easily appear maudlin, like from a souvenir stand.
When he returns next year, he vows to use colors like cobalt blue. “It is a lot to absorb here,” remarks Piet, “and you cannot paint culture shock.”
Not surprisingly, Kenya-based artist, Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, originally from Eritrea, ventured from near life-size portraits of locals to landscapes, keeping to his trademark bold, broad strokes with the breadth of house-painting brushes. He was intrigued to note that by the end of the three-week marathon that he began experimenting with smaller brush strokes typical of his European colleagues.
Leningrad trained Natalia Dik, produced works with an epic 19th century feel. Some of the best paintings avoided gilding the lily by denying how Lamu has changed; inserts of satellite dishes, telephone wires, new vacation houses on Manda island added charm to the otherwise postcard perfect scenery.
Coming to Africa with its warm, tropical colors was like coming home, said Dutch painter, Deiderik Vermeulen. What was he taking away from the experience? How “cheerful” everyone was – especially those at Peponi restaurant after 5 pm.
Unfortunately, most of the painters had left by the end of the festival’s three weeks, taking their art with them to sell in European galleries.
But one can view the hundreds of works they produced during the festival on Lamu Painters Festival’s Facebook page.
“The festival was just my funny idea,” insists Herbert, who was given and/or bought many of the best paintings, “it is not about the money.”