Artist in Residence

Roswitha Steinkopf

“Art is the Rose of the Heart”

Art is... is a quirky and lively art project dreamed up by Roswitha Steinkopf, a German painter and installation artist.  Her method of working is to visit public spaces, asking the people she finds, ‘what is art?’ In Lamu, she posed the question in Kiswahili: Ni nini sanaa?  She talked to shopkeepers, construction workers, crafts people, fishermen, fresh produce sellers, boat builders and domestic workers — ordinary folk. Her large question often turned into spirited discussion among people eager to share their views. Steinkopf has asked the same question in Italy, Berlin, New York, Shanghai, St. Petersburg, South Korea, and Kathmandu — and recently in Lamu, where she held an artist residency sponsored by the Lamu Painters Festival.

To introduce discussions on art among the local community, Steinkopf—called Mama Sanaa—initiated conversations about design, pattern, colour and cultural traditions—things evident in daily life in Lamu. Then, conversation flowed. Not so surprising given the vibrancy of art forms alive on the island today. Think of henna painting, calligraphy, Swahili architecture and designs, woodcarving and boatbuilding. Each of these artistic activities is embedded in the rich cultural traditions of the northern Swahili coast and influenced by floral and geometric designs favoured by Islamic traditions.

The answers Steinkopf received in Lamu were sometimes thoughtful and timid, other times abrasive and loud. Some answers were winded philosophical manifestos on what art is or is not. For the artist, these spirited conversations on the street, at the square, on stoops and in shops were the essence of her project. To meet Swahili women, she visited their homes. Steinkopf speaks warmly of her meetings with local women who spoke their ideas with pride and passion. She describes her approach as extremely participatory: “It is a process that involves face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact.  I have to be very present, fully involved.”

The next step of her project is to ask each person to write their thoughts about what art is on a white board that she supplies. The boards are inscribed with the word ‘art’ or, in the case of Lamu, ‘sanaa’.  In some cases, people wrote their answer with urgency as if fearing their thoughts would disappear and the moment would be lost. Still others needed coaxing and encouragement. The messages she received varied wildly and graphically — in three languages: Kiswahili, English and Arabic. Some of the artist’s favourites are: ‘Art is the rose of the heart’ and ‘a house without decoration is like a box’.

The artist assembled panels from hundreds of boards for an exhibition at the Lamu Fort during the 2012 Lamu Cultural Festival, accompanied by photographs in which the participants display their messages. The repetition of hundreds of white boards exactly the same size, hanging row upon row, created a graphic pattern that subordinated individual messages to a larger, more unified aesthetic. The handwritings in Latin and Arabic characters created a rhythmic pattern of their own, accentuated by repetition of identical shapes reduced to black on white. Audiences loved it. They stood back to view it in its entirety, then drew closer to read individual messages, perhaps hoping to find their own or a friends’ message in the exhibit. Many viewers asked for paper and pen to add their voice to the mix of “art is”, Steinkopf’s interactive documentary project.


Article written by Hadija Ernst