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Why paint about Africa?

Updated: Mar 16

I wasn’t always a painter. Painting came to me later in life. However, my painting journey  started long before that, in Africa more than thirty years ago - although I didn’t know it then.

I vividly remember traveling on my first visit to Africa through the monumental landscape of the Great African Rift Valley, when in the distance I suddenly spotted a tiny bright-red dot. This lone miniature blotch of colour stood out on the canvas of the sun-burnt savannah. And it seemed to move. A red figure was striding alone through the barren expanse of the yellow grass plains.

Maasai man in Shompole wilderness near Kenya/Tanzania border

My heart leapt. The figure seemed one with the environment, but also so vulnerable. Coming closer, I became aware of a tall, slender black man. When I reached him I noticed he was proud and handsome, adorned with colourful necklaces and earrings hanging from his elongated earlobes, a red cloth swung loosely around his body. He was the first Maasai I encountered in the Kenyan wilderness. Here I was alone in this enormous landscape far from home meeting someone from an ancient culture entirely different from my own. I was awed, humbled and deeply moved by the experience, which became etched in my memory. My fascination for the African landscape and the nomads wandering in it was born.

Within a year I quit my first job back home, moved to Kenya and started working in development cooperation. To meet the nomads, in my spare time I began to drive to remote areas - going off the tarmac, ‘off the map’. I developed a true passion for these people – their beauty, their authenticity and their utter differentness, still living as they always had, largely untouched by the modern world, which was raging all around them.

It was still the pre-digital era. There were no mobile phones yet; landlines, if at all present, often didn’t work. So when one went ‘up-country’, beyond the horizon into the unknown, one was truly ‘gone’ with the wind and the dust, detached from the rest of the world, thrown back on oneself, at the mercy of the elements and anything that could - and seemingly inevitably would – happen. It was thrilling, exciting.

I started expressing my fascination through photography – ‘painting’ with the lens and the beautiful African light. Time and again I went out with a stack of Kodak films and photographed the men, women and children of the different traditional nomadic tribes of East-Africa - people whose culture was already back then (and is even more so today) steadily undermined, as population growth, land grab and environmental challenges encroached on their natural habitat. The result was a collection of portraits that remains very dear to me. A selection of these photos has been hanging on my wall ever since. The nomads are always with me.

Traveling through the African landscape, meeting and photographing these herdsmen and women, going into the unknown while being entirely cut off from the world, out of reach and on my own, gave me such a sense of exuberance, of utter freedom, a surge of happiness as boundless as the savannah plains.

I never planned to go into painting. Painting came to me when someone introduced me to intuitive painting some years after I returned home from Africa. It was a revelation, a liberating and life-changing experience: painting intuitively was always new, full of surprises, and so much fun! The analogy with my African travel experience was striking. And yet it was only much later that I fully realised that the experience of the small red figure in that immense space, of meeting and photographing the colourful tribes-people, had been the seeds that later sparked my painting journey. I had always wanted to write. And I did write a book, and discovered that as much as I loved doing that, I preferred to paint. It was then that I decided to fully commit myself to painting. It naturally followed that one day sooner or later I would paint about my African experience, about that boundless freedom and happiness.

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