Most of the works were oils on canvas although a few were either pen-and-ink, pencil, pastel or charcoal drawn on paper.
But whatever the medium the artists chose to express themselves in response to the incredibly stimulating environment they were being introduced to by the Festival’s founder, the retired German restaurateur Herbert Menzer, their creations were inspired.
Whether responding artistically to a day on Pate or Manda islands, a morning surrounded by droves of donkeys (the main mode of transport on an island devoid of cars, buses or even boda boda motor bikes, or simply a stake out at Lamu’s town square where one could set up his or her easel at dawn and paint to his heart’s content, every day during the two week Festival was like heaven to professional artists who had come from all over Europe (Holland, Germany, Russia and UK), including two from Kenya. Their plan was singular: it was to paint in this blissfully beautiful place, which all agreed was the closest thing to paradise that they had ever seen.
Most of the artists were plein air (meaning they were painters who respond in real time to what they see and feel in the out of doors). The two Kenyan artists, Nadia Wamunyu and Zihan Kassam, weren’t concerned with the terminology, but they were just as prepared as the rest to move quickly with their portable easels and art materials from one locations to the next, depending on the itinerary Herbert had set for his invited guests.
Having first come to Lamu in 2006, Herbert had immediately fallen in love with the island paradise and genuinely wanted to share his ‘discovery’ with other Europeans, especially artists who he knew would find the island just as heavenly as he had.
But ever since he first launched the Painters Festival in 2011, he has always invited two or three Kenyans. They’ve included Patrick Mukabi, Justus Kyalo, Patrick Kinuthia and Samuel Githui as well as the Sudanese painter El Tayeb Mohammed and the Eritrean artist Fitsum .
This year he invited two Kenyan women artists: Zihan came not only to paint but also to help Herbert prepare the colorful catalogue featuring all the artists, including their bios and the very best works that they’d produced during the Festival.
Nadia on the other hand came solely to paint. The 22 year-old former student of Patrick Mukabi fit in well with all the other plein air painters primarily because in her own way, she isn’t a novice. Having begun to paint when she was just three, the award-winning artist had grown up in Kenya where people spend most of their lives outdoors in the open air so she didn’t need the label to understand the essence of ‘plein air’.
And in a sense, both Nadia and Zihan were better off than some of the Europeans who arrived in Lamu having never been in Africa before and who were bowled over by the unanticipated beauty, variety and vibrancy of light, color and people they met on the island.
Nonetheless, there weren’t many newcomers this year apart from the Kenyans; only Hartmut Brier, Sophie Walbeoffe, Svetana Tiourina and Meike Lipp since the rest had attended at least one of the previous festivals organized by the German philanthropist.
A few, like Herbert’s fellow countrymen, Jurgen Leippert (fondly known as the Duke of Shela), photographer Roland Klemp and sculptor Joachim Sauter, had attended all three festivals. So had Natalia Dik who is originally from Russia but now splits her time between St. Petersburg and Amsterdam. Other Dutch artists who have consistently come to paint at Shela include Piet Groenendijk, Dorien van Diemen and Diederik Vermeulen. Only Karin Voogd and Sibylle Bross came to the first festival but couldn’t make it back until this year.
The first thing that strikes one about the festival, apart from the dazzling day light, sparkling skies, cool oceanic breezes and warmth of the Lamu people, is the generosity of Herbert Menzer which seems almost otherworldly.
The concept of a painters festival is not his own. In fact, one sees such festivals most frequently in the Netherlands during summer months. That partially explains why so many Dutch and German artists attend his festivals. It’s also partially because he attended one painters’ festival at Noordwijk in Holland and there he met a number of artists who’ve been coming to Lamu since his festivals got underway.
What makes his Painters Festival so unique is the island itself. It’s also because Herbert has close ties with local people who have helped him find a multitude of picturesque places for artists to go and paint. Be it Makongoni on Lamu Island, Maweni on Manda or the historic ruins of Pate Island that date back centuries when the Sultans ruled the region as city states, every day was an adventure for artists, most of whom were not oblivious to the discrepancy between their painterly privilege and the poverty of places like Makongoni.
But Herbert also helped them understand that tourism is an important income-generator on the island, and as that sector has been so badly hit in recent months due to terror attacks on Lamu’s mainland.
One place that the artists spent many an evening after a long day of painting was the Peponi Hotel, a place that’s world renowned for its privacy, elegance and blissful beauty. The artists also spent one whole day painting in Peponi’s gloriously green gardens or inside the hotel itself. And on the final day of the festival, the Hotel also served as the strategic vantage point where the artists not only watched exciting dhow races; they also came to sit or stand where the shoreline meets the sea and paint all they saw.
The race is considered one of the most colourful communal events of the year in Lamu so it was a marvel to see the mix between the local population on the beach and the expatriate elites who sat up on Peponi’s veranda sipping Margaritas and rooting for the dhow of their choice.
The day might have ended on a sad note since a number of the painters were departing the island the following day, but then when Lamu’s county governor showed up specifically to meet the artists and examine their art, it became a joyful occasion.
The Governor seemed genuinely glad to meet the painters and hear more about their festival. In fact, during a press conference following his attending their exhibition at Baitil Aman, he said he was now keen to re-brand Lamu Island as the Festival Capital of East Africa.
Noting that in January, the island had witnessed the Maulid Festival; then in February we saw the Painters Festival; in March there’s a Lamu International Yoga Festival and finally in April the island will host a sumptuous Swahili Food Festival.
On that promising note, a few painters chose to remain in Shela for a few days more, having found it difficult to tear themselves away from the paradise they had found, thanks to Herbert in Lamu. The rest were graciously taken by Herbert’s boatman on his dhow, the Lady Gaga, to the airport where some of them remained briefly in Nairobi, while others had to go straight home to the cold climate of snow and ice in Europe.
And if one wonders what sort of ‘pay back’ Herbert Menzer receives from the festival, apart from the joy of sharing heaven on earth with kindred spirits like those who came this year, one need not remain perplexed.
“He chooses one painting from every artist,” said Sibylle Bross who stayed a few more days in Shela before going back to Stuttgart. “It’s a small price to pay for such an unforgettable experience,” she added, vowing to come back in two years’ time, if not sooner.