First held in 2011, the concept of a painting festival was dreamt up by Herbert Menzer, a part-time resident in Shela. Inspired by the light, colours and traditional rhythm of island life, he saw a correlation with the post-impressionist painters. The Lamu Painters Festival is now an established fixture in the Lamu calendar of events.
The 2017 Festival was the most ambitious to date. 24 Figurative artists from Russia, Holland, France and Germany descended on the island for three weeks of intensive painting. All adherents of the ‘plein air’ discipline - the art of painting outdoors – they soon transformed the streets and alleyways of Shela village and Lamu Town into an al fresco studio. Although there were several new faces, many of the artists were returning for their third or fourth visit.
Part of an archipelago of islands off the Kenyan coast, Lamu is steeped in ancient history. It was once a major port visited by the dhows plying their trade with the aid of the monsoon. The traders and crew settled and intermarried with the original inhabitants to create the Swahili: a people with their own language and distinct culture. The surviving architecture, craft and customs have more in common with the East than Africa.
Lamu has always been a magnet for artists, photographers, filmmakers, poets and writers. A natural tropical paradise, the vast skies blend with the blue palette of the Indian Ocean. The seemingly endless sandy beach melds into the impressive line of sand dunes dotted with doum palms.
The town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is suffused with the past. Ravaged by the salt air and time, much of the architecture is unchanged from its 18th and 19th Century heydey. Hints of the Chinese, Portuguese and Omani invaders appear in the woodwork and ceramics. The central square, dominated by the Omani Fort is still guarded by two menacing cannon – nowadays a comfortable perch for the Swahili as they congregate after Friday mosque.
Part of its magic and charm could be attributed to the lack of cars on the island. Aside from the District Commissioner landrover and a couple of tractors, the narrow streets can only be accessed by foot or by donkey. All other travel is dependent on the boats of all shapes and sizes – from the lumbering ‘Jahazi’ and the smaller ‘Mashua’ fishing dhows with their lateen sails to the engine-powered wooden boats and fibreglass ‘mtaboati’.
As the whiff of linseed oil and turpentine permeated the air, the artists battled with the elements as they endeavoured to create their impression of the landscape and the people. The strong Kaskazi wind brought a welcome relief from the relentless tropical heat but wrecked havoc with the canvases and flimsy easels.
The Lamuans and Shela residents are used to this biannual artistic invasion but never failed to stop and talk to the painters. Their openness and courtesy made a huge impact on all the artists. In the ensuing interviews, they all mentioned the Swahili hospitality and friendliness.
The hotel Batil Aman, a former Swahili palace became the headquarters. The painters quickly established an evening routine. Pre-dinner, they congregated in the improvised gallery showing the 300 plus paintings, critiquing each other’s work, sharing experiences and advice before sitting down to feasts cooked by Herbert’s team of untiring staff.
As well as painting in Lamu Town, a number of excursions were organised, including a visit to the once famous dhow-building town of Matandoni. Now a simple cluster of huts, it was a shock to many of the artists who had never been subjected to this level of poverty before. However, the warmth of the welcome by the Matandoni residents – playing home-fashioned musical instruments, singing and dancing – was overwhelming and made our visit a memorable occasion. An impromptu trip was taken to the deserted ruins of 18th Century Takwa. The artists also visited Maweni on Manda Island, the centre of the stone quarrying industry. The coral rag was quarried and shaped by hand before being carried down to the waiting dhows. It is harsh existence, and one artist described it as a circle in Dante’s Inferno. In comparison, an afternoon painting children’s portraits at Anidan Orphanage was a joyous occasion.
The stay concluded with a hectic weekend of activities. Merging with the Lamu Art Festival, the artists were invited to a live concert of Kenyan music in the Lamu Square, the inauguration of the exhibition in the Fort and a musical sundowner dhow trip to Manda. The festivities ended in a highly competitive dhow race involving the Lamuan and Shela communities.