PAINTERS BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN KENYA AND EUROPE BY Margaretta wa gacheru The Lamu Painters Festival was only inaugurated three years ago after Herbert Menzer, a retired German restaurateur from Hamburg, came to Lamu for the first time in 2006 and quickly adopted it as his second home. He was especially drawn to Shela, the picturesque seaside village just three and a half kilometres east of Lamu Fort and where he built his first house two years after that. The first artist Menzer called to Shela was his fellow Hamburger, professional photographer Roland Klemp. “Herbert needed photographs to put up on his website,, and that is how I also came to be charmed by the beauty of Shela and the people who live there,” said Klemp who currently has a photography exhibition mounted at the Lamu Fort, which pays tribute to the warm, authentic openness of the Lamu people. Today, both Menzer and Klemp divide their lives between Shela and Europe. Klemp estimates he’s spent a total of eleven months in Kenya since he first arrived in 2008. In contrast, Menzer now spends around six months out a year on Lamu island. “I have lived and worked in many parts of the world, but when I ‘discovered’ Lamu, I was so inspired I felt I had a duty to share it with others,” said Menzer who has worked around artists and intellectuals most of his adult life. “We had restaurants in Germany and Holland, and whenever we opened one, it was always in an urban theatre district, which meant that artists gravitated to us,” said Menzer who hoped to have a similar culturally rich experience in Kenya. To ensure that happened, he took some time before he selected the artists he wanted to invite to the first Lamu Painters Festival, which was held in Shela in 2011. Several of the artists who came to that first festival are in Shela right now during the third three week festival that closes at the end of February. Jurgin Lieppert, a fellow German who Menzer fondly nicknamed ‘the Duke’ has been to all three painters festivals. So has Piet Groenendijk, a Dutch painter who first met Herbert, as did so many of the other artists currently attending this year, at one of the numerous painters festivals held in the Netherlands. Menzer apparently took his cue to launch the Lamu Painters Festival from the Dutch who hold ‘painters festivals’ in various parts of the country as often as five or six times a year, according to Dorien van Diemen, one of the 15 artists invited to come to Shela this year. Dorien is Dutch like a third of the painters who arrived in Lamu in February for the Festival that Menzer plans in future to make a biennial affair. The other four are Margreet Boonstra, Karin Brouwer, Diederik Vermeulen and Piet. And like most of the artists who were invited this year, they all initially met Menzer at a painters’ festival. The other artists whom he met in the same way include the Siberian-born painter Natalia Dik and the Irish-born artist Bairbre Duggan, both of whom live in Holland, as well as the German painter/physics professor Dr. Jacob Kerssemakers. The other German who is in Shela with his Finnish friend and fellow artist Pekka Hepolutha, is Andre Krigar. Fortunately, not all the painters Menzer invited were European. He also called four Nairobi-based Kenyans and asked them to attend his festival. They include Patrick Kinuthia, Justus Kyalo, Samuel Githui and El Tayeb Dawelbeit, all of whom, apart from Githui, had never been to Shela before. Githui attended the festival a year ago and El Tayeb had been to Lamu back in 2004 when he attended a Wasanii Workshop at Yony Waite’s Wildebeeste Gallery and Workshop. “I’m not sure how Herbert found me,” admitted Patrick Kinuthia who normally works out of his Red Hill studio. “But I’m really glad he did. I’ve never been to Shela before and I love the experience of painting at the Coast.” Kinuthia has been prolific during his stay at Shela and plans to hold an exhibition of his coastal paintings later this year. Meanwhile, El Tayeb has spent most of his time either painting on found objects or sketching local sights as did Jacob Kerssemakers, who not only sketched a series of dhows which were grounded at Matondone, the village known for its excellent dhow builders. He also painted panoramic scrolls, some of which are six feet wide when spread out flat. Meanwhile, Kyalo has spent most time sketching, taking photographs and hanging out with the locals while taking in the beauty of the island. And as Githui didn’t arrive until the last week of the festival, he promised to surprise us with new work when (and if) we return to Shela for the official festival closing when all the artists’ works will be up at the Baitil Aman Hotel. Some of the finest paintings that were already hung at the Hotel before I left Lamu were ones painted in Matondone during a day-long excursion to that enchanting fishing village which has yet to be found by flocks of tourists. Most of the Matondone villagers were gone that day however since two presidential candidates had come to Lamu to campaign and the local voters wanted to see them. Those remaining were mainly artisans and workers who were happy to sit like professional models and be painted as they worked. That meant that Andre Kriger was able to capture the kinetic energy of Omar, the dome palm leaf weaver; Karin Brouwer was able to catch a sweet ‘Mama Safi’ vigorously washing clothes by the bucket-load, and Dorien van Dieman efficiently painted the molten power of Mahamud, the one and only blacksmith in the village who was clearly unfazed by the heat that permeated the whole mud and mangrove hut where he worked. Menzer gives full credit for the success of the artists’ day at Matondone to freelance electrician Salim Mirza, a native of Shela who studied Electrical Engineering at Mombasa Polytechnic and speaks several languages, including German, French and Italian as well as Kiswahili, Kitaita and English. “If it hadn’t been for Salim and his assistant Mafreeza, our Matondone trip couldn’t have worked out so well. They were our bridges to the local people of the village.” Menzer, in fact, is all about ‘building bridges’ not just between the locals of the Lamu coast and European painters, but also among artists from Kenya and those from Europe. Three years ago, he invited Nairobi-based painters Patrick Mukabi and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos to his first Lamu Painters Festival. Then the second year, despite his scaling down his program, he hosted Piet, Jurgen and Githui even as he continued constructing his four Swahili-styled homes. “If you look carefully, you will see Herbert hasn’t forgotten a single detail of the original Swahili architecture in his houses,” said Roland Klemp. “The main difference is that in place of coral bricks, he used plaster and cement.” The effect is remarkably similar to the original Swahili style. The other notable difference between the antique Swahili homes and Menzer’s replicas is the smoothness of his stairs leading up to each individual suite, all of which have open-air windows like the originals and all with incredible views of the Indian Ocean. This year, several artists stayed in Menzer’s Swahili houses. The rest stayed at Bastil Aman, the hotel where one can see an exhibition of the paintings made by the artists during the Festival. The exhibition hall is frankly not quite large enough to show all the remarkable works by the 15 prolific painters, a few of whom display their art outside the hall. This is fitting since a number of these same painters include themselves in an art movement currently alive and well in Europe called the ‘Plain Air’ or Open Air movement. These are painters who only paint outdoors, irrespective of whether there is rain, snow, sleet or sunshine! Among the painters who consider themselves “plain air” painters are Margreet, Dorien, Andre, Jurgin, Diederik and Natalia. The rest don’t confine themselves to any one style of painting although they all, including the Kenyans, often paint in the open air. Natalia, who also paints portraits and still-lifes with a roof over her head, says she still considers herself ‘plain air’ since she loves to paint out of doors whenever she can, especially when and where the weather is temperate. In any case, most of the paintings produced during the festival were created out of doors, as for instance when the artists chose to paint the Maulidi Festival procession which brought together Muslims from all over North Africa and the Middle East to Lamu to celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammed. Situating themselves on several second floor balconies overlooking the town’s main boulevard beside the seashore, the painters had to quickly cultivate patience as the procession was two hours behind schedule. But when the droves of dancing and singing young men finally snaked their way past the painters, destined for the town’s main mosque, the artists worked swiftly to complete their paintings which often featured the kanzu-clad teams of joyful dancers. That procession produced some of the most colorful and captivating paintings that I saw during my brief time with the artists in Lamu. What they’ll create during the remainder of the festival is anybody’s guess, but I recommend taking a trip by bus or plane to the island before the end of the month if you want to see a colorful and eclectic collection of paintings produced by Kenyans working side by side like-minded European artists, most of whom had never been to Africa before and who were frankly in awe of the beauty they found on Lamu island.


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