Postcards from an island haven

Thursday January 22 2015

Lamu Market, by Sophie Walbeoffe. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Lamu Market, by Sophie Walbeoffe. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By FRANK WHALLEY

The smack of the sea and a dazzling light have been brought to Nairobi from the Kenyan coast.

And with them has come some sense of the hopelessness endured by residents of Lamu.

The heritage island was hard hit by a dawn-to-dusk curfew, lifted only this month, that was imposed following a series of terrorist attacks on the mainland that left more than 100 dead.

The curfew, imposed last July, robbed many islanders of their livelihoods and hit the tourist industry for six. Visitors stayed away, understandably not wishing to be murdered as part of their fun-in-the-sun holiday experience.

But then came property developer Herbert Menzer and his enterprising precursor to the third Lamu Painters’ Festival, which begins next month.

He invited five Kenyan artists to stay on the island, last November, all expenses paid, to record what they saw. Menzer knew the island was safe — not a single murder there; it all happened on the mainland — and he knew art would provide the proof, as well as show the harrowing effects of knee-jerk legislation applied unselectively from a distance of nearly 500km.

Having said that, it could also be argued that the reason no terrorist attacks have taken place on the island was precisely because of the government’s prescient and rapid response with the curfew. All praise to them, then.

You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

Menzer chose the view that the artists should just record what they saw and leave the truth to tell the story.

Art as politics and the politics of art.

The paintings, sketches and sculptures produced during the three-week residency organised by this enterprising gentleman are now on show at the One-Off Gallery in Nairobi, in an exhibition called The Still Clock of Lamu. It opens on January 25, and lasts until February 25.

The exhibition distils the vibrancy and colour of an island that remains rooted in the past — and also, more subtly, the despair of its people, reduced almost to ruin by events outside their control.

All this has been recorded with a restraint that does the artists credit. The lack of obvious polemic leaves viewers to make up their own minds and adds to the works’ credibility.

All the artists are from the One-Off stable and were recommended to Menzer by its owner Carol Lees.

Of the five, two were primarily studio painters Peter Ngugi and Peter Elungat; two others — Timothy Brooke and Sophie Walbeoffe — specialised in capturing scenes on the spot (plein air painting as it is known in the trade), and one was a sculptor, Chelenge Van Rampelberg.

They were joined by the German artist Joachim Sauter, who foreswore the kinetic sculptures that have won him an international reputation and concentrated instead on a more literal, figurative approach.

Both he and Van Rampelberg produced works based on the coral stone carriers of Mawira village. Sauter’s figures were towering (one-and-a-half times lifesize) and told of the dignity of labour. Chelenge’s single piece remained unfinished and unshown, a victim of the unexpectedly hard wood provided for her. Perhaps one day…

Another victim of life on the island was Timothy Brooke. He lives in the comparative cool of the Aberdares and found the Coastal sun blisteringly hot. It did little to help his health and he retired from the fray to recover. A couple of decisive oil paintings and a few taut drawings remain evidence of his presence.

Out and about with her customary vigour was Sophie Walbeoffe. With six dashing watercolours she brought to life the vitality of the island (her market scene revelled in a glowing palette) and her wristy brushwork can be admired too in a series of around 20 postcard-sized oils also in the show.

Peter Elungat moved four of his romantic maidens from Medieval Fairyland and set them gently down on the island where, still wearing their richly billowing gowns, they looked with concern at the leaves of time showering down and saw shelves of books, representing knowledge, as the key to Lamu’s future.

Peter Ngugi, clearly moved by the plight of the islanders, took a sympathetic view, particularly of the lives of the fishermen. No longer allowed to ply their trade by night, nor to ferry non-existent tourists around the archipelago, their empty boats lay idle and, as his keynote painting puts it, Waiting for Nothing to Happen.

Another of his works — there are seven large oils in all, each up to one metre by two metres — shows a mournful fisherman with his empty red wallet sticking out of his pocket; red for danger, red for debt.

Ngugi grows in stature with every painting; an increasingly interesting artist getting to grips with a compelling subject.

We are left with the feeling that Menzer has made his point, that the island is a safe haven for tourists — and that the government should have considered the collateral effects of its curfew just a touch more carefully.

And now it is my turn to wear the dunce’s cap. Unfortunately, it is a perfect fit. Last week I attributed a wood carving of a woman’s torso to Peter Walala when in fact it was by Anthony Wanjau.

What makes it worse is that Wanjau’s name was carved in letters one inch high around the base. I really do have no excuse. My sincere apologies to both of these excellent artists.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.