By the time Lamu County governor Issa Abdalla Timamy arrived at the 300-year-old Baitil Aman Hotel in Shela on Valentine’s Day, the 14 artists who were part of the 3rd biennial Lamu Painters Festival had created more than 200 works of art all of which which were on display at the classic yet cosy Swahili-styled hotel.
Most were conceived on paper rather than canvas. But whatever the medium the artists chose in response to the incredibly stimulating environment they were being introduced to by the festival’s founder, the retired German restaurateur Herbert Menzer, their creations were inspired.
Whether responding artistically to a day on Pate or Manda island, a morning surrounded by herds of donkeys (the main mode of transport on an island devoid of cars, matatus or even motor bikes), or simply a stake out at Lamu’s town square where one could set up his or her easel at dawn and paint t0 their heart’s content, every day during the two week festival was like heaven to professional artists who had come from Europe (the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and UK), along with two from Kenya.
Their plan was singular: To paint in this blissfully beautiful place, which all agreed was the closest thing to paradise that they had ever seen.
Most of the artists worked plein air (meaning they were painters who respond in real time to what they see and feel in the outdoors).
The two Kenyan artists, Nadia Wamunyu and Zihan Kassam, weren’t concerned with the terminology, but they were just as prepared as the rest to move quickly with their portable easels, paints, pencils and brushes from one location to the next, depending on the itinerary that Mr Menzer had set for his invited guests.
The coming to Lamu in 2006, Mr Menzer immediately fell in love with the island paradise and genuinely wanted to share his “discovery” with other Europeans, especially artists whom he knew would find the island just as heavenly as he had.
But ever since he first launched the Lamu Painters Festival in 2011, he has always invited two or three Kenya-based painters to each event. They are Patrick Mukabi, Justus Kyalo, Patrick Kinuthia, Samuel Githui, El Tayeb Mohammed, Sophie Walbeoffe and Fitsum Berhe.
This year he invited two Kenyan women artists: Kassam came not only to paint but also to help Menzer prepare the colourful catalogue featuring all the artists, including their bios and the very best works that they products during the festival.
Nadia on the other hand came solely to paint. The 22-year-old former student of Patrick Mukabi fit in well with all the other plein air painters primarily because in her own way, she isn’t a novice. Having begun to paint when she was just three, she is ahead of an the award-winning artist.
And in a sense, both Nadia and Kassam were better off than some of the Europeans who arrived in Lamu having never been in Africa before and who were bowled over by the unanticipated beauty, variety and vibrancy of light, colour and people they met on the island.
Nonetheless, there weren’t many newcomers this year apart from the Kenyans, Hartmut Brier Kenya-based British artist, Sophie Walbeoffe, Svetana Tiourina and Meike Lipp since the rest had attended at least one of the previous festivals organised by Mr Menzer.
A few, like Mr Menzer’s fellow countrymen, Jurgen Leippert (fondly known as the Duke of Shela), photographer Roland Klemp and sculptor Joachim Sauter, had attended all three festivals. So had Natalia Dik who is originally from Russia but now splits her time between St. Petersburg (Russia) and Amsterdam (Holland).
Other Dutch artists who have consistently come to paint at Shela include Piet Groenendijk, Dorien van Diemen and Diederik Vermeulen. Only Karin Voogd and Sibylle Bross came to the first festival but couldn’t make it back until this year.
The first thing that strikes one about the festival, apart from the dazzling daylight, sparkling skies, cool oceanic breezes and warmth of the Lamu people, is the generosity of Menzer, which seems almost otherworldly.
The concept of a painters festival is not his own. In fact, one sees such festivals most frequently in the Netherlands during the summer months. That partially explains why so many Dutch and German artists attend his festivals. It’s also partially because he attended one painters festival at Noordwijk in Holland and there he met a number of artists who’ve been coming to Lamu since his festivals got underway.
What makes his Lamu Painters Festival so unique is the island itself. It’s also because Mr Menzer has close ties with the local people who have helped him find a multitude of picturesque places for artists to go and paint. Be it Makongoni on Lamu Island, Maweni on Manda or the historic ruins of Pate Island that date back centuries when the sultans ruled the region as city states, every day was an adventure for the artists, most of whom were not oblivious to the discrepancy between their painterly privilege and the poverty of places like Makongoni.
But Mr Menzer also helped them understand that tourism is an important income-generator on the island, and as that sector has been so badly hit in recent months, their presence can be seen as positive since they’re not only injecting revenue into the local economy, they are also proving by their example that Lamu is peaceful, safe and secure. Indeed, it’s the closest place to paradise or “peponi” in Kiswahili.
One place that the artists spent many an evening after a long day of painting was the Peponi Hotel, world renowned for its privacy, elegance and blissful beauty.
The artists also spent one whole day painting in Peponi’s gloriously green gardens or inside the hotel itself. And on the final day of the festival, the hotel also served as the strategic vantage point where the artists not only watched exciting dhow races; but also came to sit or stand where the shoreline meets the sea and paint all that they saw.
The race is considered one of the most colourful communal events of the year in Lamu so it was a marvel mixing with the local population on the beach as well as with the expatriate elites who sat up on Peponi’s veranda sipping margaritas and rooting for the dhow of their choice.
The day might have ended on a sad note since a number of the painters were departing the island the following day, but then when Lamu’s County governor Mr Timamy showed up specifically to meet the artists, it became a joyful occasion.
The governor seemed genuinely glad to meet the painters and hear more about the festival. In fact, during a press conference following his attending their exhibition at Baitil Aman, he said he was now keen on re-branding Lamu Island as the Festival Capital of East Africa.
He noted that that, “In January, the island had held the Maulid Festival; and now in February we had the Painters Festival; in March there will be a Swahili Food Festival and in April there will be an international Yoga Festival.”
On that promising note, a few painters remained in Shela for a few days more, having found it difficult to tear themselves away from the paradise they had found, thanks to Mr Menzer. The rest were graciously taken by Mr Menzer’s boatman on his dhow, the Lady Gaga, to the airport where some of them flew to Nairobi, while others had to go fly back to a cold European winter.
And if one wonders what sort of “pay back” Mr Menzer receives from the festival, apart from the joy of sharing heaven on earth with kindred spirits like those who came this year, one need not remain perplexed.
“He chooses one painting from every artist,” said Sibylle Bross who stayed a few more days in Shela before going flying back to Stuttgart, Germany. “It’s a small price to pay for such an unforgettable experience,” she added, vowing to come back in two years’ time, if not sooner.