Artist in Residence

Lili Nalovi & Jesko Willert:
The Baitil Aman Exhibition 5th – 9th April 2012

A Nalovi-Willert exhibition is never just a hanging of work on blank white walls. The two are known for radically altering spaces using a bold and vibrant aesthetic inspired by their travels, but led always by the paintings that are to be shown. “Art is not about stopping at the edge of the frame,” Jesko Willert says. “We like playing with people’s imagination,” Lili Nalovi adds. Their show at Baitil Aman in Lamu did just that.

Soon after arriving in Lamu as Artists in Residence, Lili and Jesko began collecting materials for use in a show that would happen towards the end of their three-month stay. They gathered everything from driftwood, to rope, to bits of straw matting. People raised eyebrows, including their local helper Hamisi. “I saw Hamisi thinking: What’s this? Why are they picking this stuff up from the beach?” Jesko remembers. “He said to me, “We also have new ones if you want.” And I said no – I want the old ones!” On a visit to Maweni the couple saw the traditional chairs and immediately made a deal to rent some for the exhibition.

Four days before the opening, Lili and Jesko began their transformation of Baitil Aman. Many of their smaller paintings were fixed to hunks of old dhow wood whose weathered patina echoed the tones of the works themselves. The wood was then suspended from the ceiling with lengths of worn rope that still smelled of the ocean. Jesko’s large canvases were draped above the courtyard in an echo of the clothes hanging on washing lines around the village. Some paintings were placed in the building’s ornate wall niches. The couple included their sketchbooks in the show, and some video footage done in Lamu. Sculptural arrangements of old fish bones, and strings of the lights used at local festivals were added to the display. Fuschia pools of Bouganvillea were dotted around the floor.

The artists wanted the exhibition to be a dialogue with the building, but also with what was outside, and with Lamu’s rich history. “It was important for us to have echoes of daily life. Lamu was built up by the dhows and by the donkeys.” Jesko explains. “I wanted at least three donkeys in there,” Lili says. “We really had to fight to get them!” Through their efforts Baitil Aman was transfigured from a mere setting into an enchanting world, an art-scape in itself.

After the show, Lili and Jesko noticed a different attitude towards them. “I figured out that the people were greeting us much more. Even calling hello from another boat,” says Jesko. Lili agrees: “I think they understood better what we were doing, that we respected their culture with our work, and they appreciated this.”