Artist in Residence

Veit Utz Bros:
Reflections on the Residency

“After a long-distance flight with Turkish Airlines and an 8-hour wait at Nairobi airport – where it was 7°C and raining - I found myself wondering whether this arduous journey made sense. Once I arrived in Lamu, all such thoughts were forgotten. It was so much more beautiful than expected!

I received a very warm welcome at the Lamu airstrip, and after the short boat ride to Shela village, a similar reception awaited me at Habibti House. The rooftop apartment of this Swahili mansion would be my beloved home for the next three weeks!

That very afternoon I went to visit Abuu's timber workshop. A neighbouring inner courtyard would be my studio space for the duration of my stay. Seven mangrove tree trunks were about to be delivered there so I could do my woodcarving.

The next morning I couldn’t wait to start work! The two thinnest trunks (about 30 centimeters each in diameter) were brought by handcart to my studio. And so I began, under the makuti shelter, with a length of old dhow sailcloth hanging above me for protection against the hot sun in that hot world.

The back of my studio accommodated three donkeys, while the rest of the courtyard was full of the most beautiful ancient timber and other aged materials, like old dhow wood, driftwood and old metal parts. Inspired by this medley of materials, and the great mangrove logs, I envisioned creating a large statue. All the body parts would be made from the amazing stock of stuff around me. I saw immediately that the arms would be formed from two wonderful curved pieces of old dhow wood, a broken stool made of palm wood would become the head, and the figure would wear a cape of rusty wire….

Francis, the workshop manager, and the other fundis (craftsmen) Charo and Chiefu were eager to assist me whenever necessary. I could not have been more enchanted by the people. Everyone in Lamu was unbelievably friendly; they were always looking through the gate into my studio, ready for a chat, open-minded and curious about the mzungo (stranger/white man) working there, apparently senselessly, in the heat.

Every day, except Sundays (when the workshop was closed and the boss, Abuu, needed to chew his mira), I worked for between five and seven hours. Afterwards, I was always totally exhausted, but delighted.

The completed figure had a height of four meters. With the help of Francis and the other fundis we raised the statue and set it on a massive log, which became the base. Abuu, the boss, was consulted for important decisions. He was always a little tense, and continually asked whether I needed assistance. Often he noted, with surprise, just what can be made from wood!

After a week and a half, the statue, including the massive base, was once again taken apart and transported on a cart down Lamu’s main street, all the way to Kimani's gallery at Lamu Fort, where it was reassembled. Kimani, a perceptive person, had an intuition about the statue and named it ‘Uhuru’ (freedom) – because on the left the figure carries a slave chain and on the right the stick to fight for freedom!

Back at the workshop, I carried on with my second figure, made entirely of material from marvelous finds at Abuu's camp. In the end, this statue was approximately two meters high and carried a panga (sword) in the left hand. But its face was friendly, as if saying “karibu” (welcome). Gabriella, the owner of The Shela Fort (an imposing residential version of the great, ancient Lamu Fort), was excited by the piece and, with a wink, named the statue ‘Soldier of Love’. It remains with her to this day.

Time was running, but there was still enough left to create a couple of smaller figures. These were also made of used wood from Abuu’s treasure-filled courtyard. Finally, all the finished works were carried onto Naomi dhow, which then sailed to Peponi beach in Shela with a strange cargo of wooden figures. The dhow became an art space, and it was great fun to set up what was quite possibly the one and only exhibition ever on a dhow. During low tide the dhow anchored on shore, as close to the terrace of the Peponi Beach Hotel as possible, and it attracted lots of curious onlookers. A perfect finale to the weeks of intense work and pleasure.

Working artistically in Abuu’s workshop was a great challenge and one of the most exciting experiences of my life. How open minded and friendly Africans are! Always ready to help! The hard life on the island has not dampened people’s sense of humour or their ability to have fun. Lamu locals love laughing and joking and are great creators of nicknames. I became close friends with Francis and the other the fundis who worked for Abuu.

On the day of my departure I received heartfelt gifts and was told that I would be missed - and that I should always return. I deeply enjoyed the hospitality of my Artist in Residence stay: the beautiful accommodation and the hospitality of Herbert and his staff, the wonderful walks on the beach and swimming with dolphins, spending time on the legendary Peponi terrace, getting to know local residents and being invited into their homes – like Gabriella’s Fort. I simply had a great time.”

Veit Utz Bross, Stuttgart, October 2011

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