Ancient wisdom and the lightness of being

Friday November 6 2015

Aloes, by Timothy Brooke. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Aloes, by Timothy Brooke. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 


Confucious, he say: “Artist who cannot draw puts paint in wrong place.”

The importance of drawing as the basis of art is underlined by a current exhibition by that doyen of East African artists, Timothy Brooke.

He draws accurately and with economy, describing form, weight and volume with a few crisp lines of charcoal and chalk.

His paint, in liquid rushes often blessed by passages of creamy impasto, creates the forms of subjects ranging from sailing boats dragged up on the beach at Lamu, to the countryside, its wildlife, livestock and people.

Brooke paints flowers too and does so exceptionally well.

In all his work, Brooke captures the lightness of our being and holds the essence of a vanishing Africa to our eyes.


He starts work at 7.30 each morning, seven days a week, painting with oils straight from the tube, either in the studio or out and about with his sketchbook, canvas and paints beside him in his old Land Rover as he searches for scenes to record.

He does not have to look far.

Living in Nanyuki, he often drives past Mt Kenya — one of his most frequent subjects in all weathers, times of day and different moods — and takes the short hop north past Isiolo and out into the arid lands where he finds himself among nomads herding cattle, goats and camels, women at the well and wildlife in abundance.

All is grist to his mill; a love of the natural wonders that have gained him support from Laikipia Wildlife Forum, grateful for his record of what has been around for thousands of years, but what we stand to lose within decades — a disappearing landscape and a changing way of life.

Here is the sweep of the savannah or the shimmering haze of the desert, the stoicism of its peoples and the breadth and beauty of its wildlife.

The majesty of elephants walking single file beneath the sun excites him, as does the stealth of a prowling lioness. But Brooke also stops to record the little things that make up the whole.

A field of wheat in close-up featured in a recent exhibition; and a study of aloes at the roadside is one of the highlights of his current show, Genesis, at the One-Off in Rosslyn, Nairobi, on until November 24.

Aloe flowers — small explosions of orange and cadmium red — balance on slender stalks in a lattice that thrills the eye and welcomes visitors to the show.

The elephants are there, in a daring painting entitled The Blue January; daring because around 90 per cent of the picture is deep sky, yet what immediately commands attention is the accuracy of the drawing that informs his painting of the elephants along the bottom edge of the canvas. They are moving with a certainty of purpose, surprisingly light-footed in the dust.

Here too is the lioness, sleek and ochre, filling the frame, in a painting stacked up against the wall, with 13 other earlier works wrapped in cellophane. They join 17 on the walls of the main gallery and a further seven in the nearby Stables of which no fewer than seven are views of Mt Kenya.

I never tire of them.

Broad-brush and spontaneous, each is a masterclass in getting the drawing right — each stroke creating the bones of the mountain on which the oils become flesh; luscious, fat slabs of them.

From an evening orange that sings of the last light to the tender lilacs and lavenders of a cloudy midday, they note differences in seasons, times and weather with an assurance that would make meteorologists weep with joy.

If Brooke is short of a show some time, he could well consider one devoted to his Mt Kenya paintings. They are a microcosm of his art as well as a benchmark for any aspiring artist.

Camels crossing a wadi; women washing at the river; a young Surma girl pert of breast, pink of bangle and chalk white of face; zebra stumbling and floating across the Mara (three of these, which demonstrate Brooke’s close observation of weight and form) — all paintings that delight in themselves but exist too as documents of increasing importance as our world begins to dissolve around us.

Artists recreate reality in a way that enhances our understanding.

Brooke’s paintings celebrate this new reality, and at the same time commemorate a painterly skill that will reference the beauty of these landscapes and their people long after oil wells and mines have scarred them, the nomads have been rounded up and herded off to pastures new, and supermarkets have been allowed to bloom in the desert — unwanted, unneeded, unloved.