Jade & Silver: beautiful paintings of Camille Wekesa at Framers Gallery

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on May 31, 2018 at 12:54 PM

Spellbound. Jade Sea.

Jade & Silver: beautiful paintings of Camille Wekesa at Framers Gallery

By James Brewer

After days of journeying through the “endless greyness” of arid Turkana county in the Kenyan interior, travellers come across the Jade Sea.

The Jade Sea is a vision of startling colour, as described by conservationist, educator and accomplished artist Camille Wekesa, whose portfolio of paintings resulting from two Kenya safaris is the focus of an exhibition in London (at Framers Gallery, Fitzrovia) on June 5-8, 2018. The display had already received an enthusiastic reception at its showing in Nairobi. Her sojourn in the UK will be an exciting visit for Camille, who was based there for several years earlier in her career.

Shaped Stones.

Her paintings are from safaris in two contrasting parts of Kenya: Tsavo National Park, one of the largest conservation areas in Africa, and Turkana in Northern Kenya, synonymous with the origins of mankind.

The Jade Sea was one of the “extraordinary scenes” she saw in Turkana, where “days rolled by with no vistas except lava, grey stones, sand, rocks and endless greyness.” For her exhibition, Camille chose the title Jade & Silver, reflecting the extraordinary metallic colours assumed by many tree species at Tsavo.

In one of her paintings, appropriately entitled Spellbound, Camille brings to life the startling turquoise-green tones of the 290 km long, 50 km wide Jade Sea, which is the world’s largest desert lake. Some 300 m above sea level, it is the biggest stretch of water in Kenya. although smaller than Lake Victoria on the borders with Uganda and Tanzania.

From the Tsavo Trees series.

It is one of the hottest places in Kenya and for that matter anywhere else (temperatures can go up to 50C), and Camille says: “As an artist I wanted to capture the incredible variety of grey hues in the stunning dry, desolate, barren expanse. And the tremendous heat with nothing but grey everywhere.” Every now and again, like a mirage a boma(settlement) would appear in the harsh, inhospitable landscape.

She certainly does reflect the intricacy of the scene, having sketched there in oil paint to draw out the configuration of hues underneath the grey tones. “Raising the horizon in the composition allowed me to capture the vastness of the territory,” she adds, writing in the catalogue.

Camille, who is adept at describing such scenes, and her artistic process, conveyed the oppressive heat by putting down the initial layers of paint: warm dark burnt umber, rich burnt sienna, vermillion, cadmium oranges and yellows, giving way to greys as the final layers.

The lake area affords an emotional connection for mankind – it has been called the cradle of humanity. It is where in the 1960s the Leakey family discovered hominin (primates directly ancestral to humans) fossils dating back some 2.5m years, in ancient sediment forced to the surface by the tectonic movements of the Great Rift Valley.

Camille credits as an inspiration for her interpretation of Turkana the gift of a book about the great Australian painter Fred Williams, who strove to find a unique language for the part of his country’s landscape that was vast, barren, isolated and “not picturesque.”

Tsavo Trees V.

She is anxious that, as development slowly but surely creeps up on this part of Kenya, “it will remain an incredible, magical, spectacular wilderness.”

Aside from the magnificent wildlife, for which it is renowned worldwide, the vast Tsavo park has trees that, as Camille puts it, shimmer and reflect extraordinary metallic colours, particularly in the dry season. How to reflect that effervescence on canvas? Her answer was to use transparent water-based tempera paint on brilliant white gesso panels, with touches of pearl lustre powder. Like all she creates, this was a painstaking labour of love, as the delicate filigree lines attest.

“I still feel I am at the beginning of my journey when it comes to exploring oils and the complexity of layering colour, and hope in the future, to gain greater expertise and understanding by creating form with layers as opposed to excessive detail.”

Camille is committed to art education which is sorely needed as it is no longer a required subject at public schools in Kenya. The company she founded, Orkedi, focuses on creative education, and making art and conservation accessible to ordinary Africans by documenting and collecting work depicting African landscapes, trees, environment and wildlife.

Orkedi has established a permanent collection of African landscape and wildlife art in Nanyuki, a town that is a gateway to Mount Kenya national park.

Since 2016, she has been working with Lewa Conservancy (www.lewa.org) to create a programme in some of the 22 schools it has built and supports, with classes taught by professional Kenyan artists. The Matisse Foundation and several private donors support the programme, and part of the proceeds of the London and Nairobi exhibition will go towards the project.

As she continues to explore the variety of terrains of Kenya, trees have become a favourite subject. That interest began when she was growing up on a farm on the slopes of Mt Elgon in western Kenya, surrounded by farmland, forests and animals, and owes much to her father, Dr Noah Wekesa, who loves nature and worked as a veterinary surgeon.

Camille Wekesa

That interest deepened during the six years she was secretary of the board of Karura Forest (friendsofkarura.org), coinciding with her father’s elevation to government minister of forestry and wildlife.

Camille’s latest initiative is a five-year mural project depicting world heritage sites and endangered wildlife, birds, flora and fauna from all over Kenya.

Her work has received a ringing endorsement from Alice Macaire, co-founder Friends of Karura Forest, advisor to inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and co-founder of Edclub (Encouraging Disadvantaged Children to Learn Using Broadband).

Mrs Macaire, married to Robert Macaire, British ambassador to Kenya 2008-2011, wrote in the catalogue: “Most artists are spectators of the beauty of nature, but Camille approaches it from an entirely different angle. It is her passion for nature that guides every choice she makes for her life and it is from this passion that her paintings naturally evolve.”

Mrs Macaire recounted her meeting with Dr Wekesa in his ministerial capacity nine years ago when she urged him to help save the large Karura Forest in the northern part of the city of Nairobi from criminality, illegal logging, and threats from developers. “That day was to change the future of Karura, not just because I quickly realised that Dr Wekesa was an ally and ready to support in any way, but also because he brought with him a very special gift to the initiative … his daughter Camille.

“From that first day Camille pretty well gave up her life to help – not doing the fancy jobs – instead doing the hard graft. And then we saw her paintings… Camille’s gift to Karura and to conservation in Kenya is her art…. and it is extraordinary.”

Camille says: “As a Kenyan artist, I hope that we Africans can one day find our place alongside the great traditions of both Western and Chinese landscape painting.”

Jade & Silver, paintings by Camille Wekesa, is at The Framers Gallery 36 Windmill Street Fitzrovia, London, W1, from June 5 to 8, 201810am-5.30pmSaturday June 9, 11am-2pm


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