The Lamu Painters Festival is an event that brings artists from Europe and Africa to Lamu, an island in the Lamu Archipelago off the northern coast of Kenya. The participating artists come to paint the landscapes of the island using plein air techniques—figurative paintings that employ abbreviated details and unusual compositions to catch the moment and feeling of a place, usually on canvas. During this year’s festival, 4th to 20th February 2013, 15 artists attended: 11 from Netherlands and Germany and 4 from Nairobi. The 16-day festival provided the artists opportunities to paint Lamu life—from markets to streets scenes and from portraits to landscapes.
During the 16-day festival, artists moved around the island daily, sometimes setting up their easels in quirky places—rooftops, alleyways, against chicken coops and displays of tomatoes and on sailing dhows—to capture on canvas the island life they experienced. More than 220 paintings were completed over the course of the festival—an incredible number of works. They were displayed in Baitl Aman Hotel in Shela village in a public exhibition that continued for the duration of the festival.
Many of the artists were straight off an airplane from wintry Europe.Their eyes had to adjust to the bright equatorial sun and their bodies to the tropical heat. Even artists coming from Nairobi found unfamiliar sights and sounds. Most happily adjusted to the island life style, where shoes are kicked off, strangers greet each other, donkeys wake you with their braying and prayer call sets the time of day. Yet, in this island paradise, there are challenges facing the community. Poverty is one, easily observed and documented. For many festival artists, Lamu is their first experience in Africa and living in a Moslem community. It is the intention of the festival to create a safe space to enable artists to examine their notions of Africa and Islam against real life situations and with real people. Often the Interactions that occur engender new ways of seeing and being in the world. In turn, these experiences can influence the artists’ ideas and observations and how they paint.
The festival organisers chose a variety of places on Lamu and neighbouring Manda Island that they expected would pique the interest of artists during the festival.They visited two sites on Manda, including 17th century ruins of Takwa and the industrious quarry village of Maweni. On Lamu, they visited a farm on the outskirts of town, the bustling Lamu market, Matondoni, a village on the farside of the island and many spots along the seaside. The Painters Festival coincided with the annual Maulid Festival in Lamu, a special Islamic celebration, which provided an opportunity for artists to experience and paint the religious activities of the community. On the final days of the Painters Festival, the organisers hosted a dhow race, which brought sailors and boats from other islands to compete in the event, an opportunity for artists at their easels.
This was the second Lamu Painters Festival; the first took place in February 2011.