Introduced in 2011, the Lamu Painters Festival is a plein-air painting biennale, luring upcoming and established artists from Europe and Africa. The architects of the experience hope for a rich cultural exchange amid the artists from different continents and between the artists and the people of Lamu.
Painting en plein air is a French expression meaning to “paint in open air.” Outdoor painting became popular in the mid-19th century with the Barbizon School of painters and with French Impressionists like Monet and Renoir. The objective of the festival is to paint in real-time, producing a portrait or landscape that captures the existing environment on the exquisite Lamu Island.
2015 marked the 3rd Lamu Painters Festival, which hosted 14 plein air painters; 5 Dutch, 4 Germans, 2 Russians, 2 Kenyans and a British expatriate residing in Kenya. With enquiring first-timers like Hartmut Beier and Meike Lipp, and popular old-timers Jurgen Lieppert and Piet Groenendijk, the motley crew arrived in the last days of January. With a couple of days to settle in, they prepared for the launch on Monday, February 2nd.
Beginning with day trips to Lamu Old Town, there were numerous trips on the program and the artists visited town squares, markets and workshops. Perpetually island surfing, they travelled by boat to Maweni village to observe the strapping stone-carriers in their curious, circus-style balancing act. Next, there was a day trip to Matondoni, a small village west of Lamu, known for the construction and restoration of dhows. On every occasion, each artist would chose scene that spoke to them, painting in the village, the peripheries, or by the sea.
Whether it was Pate Island or one of the small villages on the outskirts of Lamu Town, artist connected with different locales, many of them returning to the people and places that resonated with them. While some were smitten by the children at Anidan Orphanage, others were drawn to the magnificent baobabs of Manda Island.
The dramatic “Donkey Party” was a noteworthy event that brought every man and his donkey to the “Gaza Strip” piazza in Shela, where a total of forty donkeys were gathered by mid-morning. A robust territorial jack, fuming with jealously, brayed incessantly the whole time. Rolling in the dust, tending to their foals, and exasperating each other in an ear-splitting round-up, their constant hee-hawing resounded through Shela.
After a tranquil painting session in the serene gardens of Peponi Hotel one afternoon, hotel owner Carol Korschen treated all of the artists to a sumptuous lunch at the popular seaside restaurant. With an exquisite, wide-ranging menu including fresh seafood and inventive cocktails like the famous ‘Old Pal’, ‘Peponi’s’ is certainly the social hotspot of Shela – the place to see and be seen!
The vernissage of the 2015 LPF exhibition at the Baitil Aman Guest House in Shela yielded an impressive turnout. With the support of Dutch Gallery Owner Peter Rijs, the evening ran beautifully. The guests were edified by a variety of skilled and alluring artworks, many of which captured the essence of Lamu.
German photographer Roland Klemp, documented the event. Klemp followed the artists, for over two weeks, wherever they roamed, ceaselessly capturing the festival through his lens.
The festival concluded with the annual Lamu Painters Festival Dhow Race on February 14th. A celebratory experience, the Anidan drummers energized the large crowd on the beach, while the sound of nervous captains and boatmen filled the air. Women in black Swahili attire watched from a distance as ten dhows lined up in front of Peponi Hotel and soon set sail. After two and a half hours of calm, the applause was intense when the winners returned. In a tight race, Galaxy sailed in just inches behind Zazie, with Captain Shahib of Zazie taking home first prize. Celebrations kicked off, winding up a fun-filled occasion for all.
Memories of Lamu are at once sweet and bitter-sweet. They are coloured by beauty, joy and inspiration and by the sobering empathy that arises in the face of poverty and hardship. Sprinkled with highlights and lowlights, it is fair to say that the festival experience is different for each artist but it is the desire to experience the intense beauty and cultural fertility that attracts them to the charming island.