If ever a place was made for an art festival, Lamu is that place. Around every corner on this ancient island is another striking scene that makes one stop and grab for the camera or the easel. The fusion of Swahili architecture, elegant customs, ornate crafts and aromatic spices ignites the imagination and inspires ingenuity. In the words of Zihan Kassam, artist and art curator, ‘Lamu has long understood the artistic ingredients that bring splendour and luxury to everyday life’.-
Perhaps for this reason, the number of internationally acclaimed artists who have made the island their home, or visit frequently, reads like a who’s who of the art world. Names like Nicholas Logsdail, Mary Soam, Marina Abramovic, Anish Kapoor, Alexandra Spyratos and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos roll off the tongue on this island of innovation. And the people of Lamu are extraordinarily inventive too. Wander the alleys and you’ll find tables of ancient dhow wood, jewellery of the beads of the trade routes, beach bags of adorned canvas sails and walls decorated with original murals.
To celebrate this artistry, patron of the arts Herbert Menzer and photographer Roland Klemp established the Shela Hat Contest in 2010. Known locally as the Mad Hatters’ Contest, the event gave locals the opportunity to express their ingenuity and creativity in the making of hats – for who doesn’t need a hat in the dazzling sunlight of Lamu? The event was an immediate hit. The hats combined shells, coral, pipes, bones, flipflops, feathers, fabric, palm leaves, coconut husks and everything else found on the island; many made satirical statements of political or environmental significance that had the judges and audience laughing – or wincing.
In 2016, in the days preceding the Shela Hat Contest, the Lamu County Government established the Lamu Art Festival. Its aim was to bring together all the artists already based on the island, to showcase the art already being created here, and to invite new artists to visit the island and exhibit here. Herbert Menzer handpicked artists from around the world who congregated in Lamu, their mission to create a body of work inspired by the island.
The event was such a success that it was replicated, with different artists, in 2017. In 2018, however, something slightly different is planned. Two Russian artists will take on the role of Artists in Residence; their stay will culminate with a display of their work at the lovely Baitil Aman in Shela on the weekend of 16th to 18th February. Svetlana Tiourina studied under the mentorship of acclaimed Russian artist Igor Vasiliev; immediately struck by the images and colours of Lamu when she first visited, she can be seen sketching in boats, alleyways and local eateries around the island. Maria Kolyvanova studied art at the Academy of the City of Perm and was also so taken by Lamu the first time she came she has created a collection of pieces set on and around the island. Famed sculptor Joachim Sauter will also be on site. Moved by the Maweni miners of Manda Island, he has created a series of outsized sculptures of the stone carriers that will be on display throughout the weekend.
Peponi Hotel, the cornerstone of Shela, in conjunction with Circle Art Gallery of Nairobi, will be exhibiting work from a number of East Africa’s emerging new artists, as well as watercolours and drawings by Lamu’s talented residents.
The weekend will – of course – feature the Shela Hat Contest on the Saturday on the beach outside Peponi, a reggae party at Diamond Beach on Manda Island that same night, and the infamous and highly contested Mad Hatters’ Dhow Race along the channel on Sunday.