2017 began in Africa . This was not something I or my family ever believed would happen until we started planning the trip in early 2016. Nor was it something that we could fully imagine in all its detail, however prepared we tried to be. We read, we had vaccinations, chose the anti-malarial tablets, studied the climate, the route we were taking, the planned itinerary and packed as little as possible , not forgetting the insect repellant. It all looked straight forward as we boarded the plane at London Heathrow on the 28th December.
Our destination was Tanzania but we could only get there via Kenya where we needed to pick up a second flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro. A second flight that unfortunately never took off. The cancellation was announced just before the departure time and threw us, and some fellow passengers, in to a degree of panic. This was suitably fuelled by the chaos at the airline’s transfer desk. As the day dawned and with it our realisation that there was no guarantee we would get on another flight that day, or the next, we were advised that “by land” was our best alternative. ” By land??” We were in the wrong country, not just the wrong city! This was not an African vision I had anticipated.
We were advised it was three and half hours drive to the border where we would be picked up by a rep from the tour company – followed by another 3 hours to get to our destination. Long, but not impossible, and we would get there by the end of the day, provided there was no hitch with Kenyan visas or the border immigration. Thankfully there wasn’t.
It was a good plan that none of us regretted. The drive across Southern Kenya to the border was our first introduction to East Africa and despite the fact all of us were exhausted the expansive landscape absorbed us whole heartedly – the vast open spaces, the trees, the villages, the colours, the roaming Masai , the waving children and the road side stalls and shops. Everything made was brightly coloured – painted shop fronts, fabrics, clothes and trinkets. Kenyan locals sat under trees and by their shops alongside the road as we passed through the villages. Clusters of people were gathered around local bars as well as stalls and shops. There were busy markets in some of the bigger centres but all activity happened along the roadside , the well trodden route to economic survival.
The Collective is fortunate to have two “studies” by Kenyan born artist Michael Armitage, who works between London and Nairobi. He draws most of his inspiration from observations and memories of Kenya but interweaves his images with reflections on the deeper social problems associated with the effect of globalisaton on East African cultures. Michael’s main medium is oil painted on lubugo bark cloth, made from beating the bark for several days before stretching it out as a canvas. The two studies we have in our collection are drawings – studies for larger oil paintings not yet done, but beautiful works in themselves.
Our first contact with Michael was during a collaborative project I ran between my employers UBM and Drawing Room, a Southwark based public, non-profit gallery of international reputation. Michael featured in the exhibition “Connecting worlds” (held at UBM’s previous Ludgate House premises) which highlighted the diverse communities and cultures we live and work between. The Collective visited most of the exhibitions over the three years that this project ran, and as the works were available for purchase we bought Michael’s two studies of “people by the roadside” in Kenya.
I have always found the drawings compelling – their simplicity and yet their ability to capture a scene, a way of life, a gathering, a community, a moment in time in a culture that interacts with our own and yet is so different.
Now when I look at these drawings multiple visions of Africa come to mind – not just the people of Kenya and Tanzania but the landscapes, the colours, the heat and the feel of once being there. African visions that can overwhelm and are never forgotten.