The Art of Africa

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Art of Africa


Byline: Lynn Houghton

[bar] T HAD been nearly five hours since we left Thornicroft Lodge in Mufwe, deep in the Zambian bush, after spending several days on safari. Jolting and jostling along 100km of dirt road -- a three-hour drive -- and then two hours on Tarmac, our jeep finally approached the border with Malawi.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something. It was a small group of villagers, not far from the road, wearing masks and dancing as part of celebrations known as Guluwankulu. Roughly translated as "The Secret Society", Guluwankulu is a tribal religion with initiation rites and dance-infused ceremonies which have existed in this part of Africa since the Stone Age. Grabbing my camera, I shouted for everyone to look only to have our normally sedate driver and tour guide, Ben, order me to put it down. "We are at the border! We mustn't draw attention to ourselves," he said tensely.

The focus of my African trip was to record images, but not with a camera. With the guidance of Mary-Anne Bartlett, art tutor and Africa expert, our intimate group would use pencil and paper to do lightning-fast drawings of animals or people in an attempt to capture them in action.

By the end of the trip I had seen and drawn hippo, elephant, lion, impala, zebra, giraffe, buffalo; also, hyenas, vultures, fish and sea eagles, carmine bee-eaters and more. But by far the most significant event for me was spotting an elusive leopard meandering along a ravine in Luangwa Park.

Flying over Malawi from Nairobi and on approach to Lilongwe, I noticed the dry landscape scarred with brick-red coloured roads criss-crossing it. Luckily I'd brought lots of raw sienna and ochre colours. As a child, I had watched a talented auntie create the painted deserts of Arizona with oils and had always had an interest in imitating her. I had shown a talent for drawing early on, but had not continued after my teens. This was my chance to do something creative again. I would also need to justify the cost of materials required for the trip.

We stayed, initially, at the new Sanctuary Lodge in a beautiful setting within the capital city but anticipation was mounting to get to our first safari destination -- the Shire River and Liwonde National Park. After travelling across the nearly deforested land (everyone is now legally allowed to make bricks for their houses so the trees are necessary fuel for the brick kilns) our arrival into Liwonde National Park and Mvuu Camp, with chalets right on the river, felt like discovering an oasis.

We settled in quickly as drawing instruction would now start in earnest. We would practise geometric shapes until we got the chance to observe the animals up close. Our first trek the next morning got us sketching and we were introduced to our guide for Liwonde, Danger. In Malawi, the first-born son is named by the maternal uncle and Danger's uncle had worked in the treacherous mines of nearby South Africa, naming him after the day-to-day conditions of his existence.

The first day out on the Shire River was startlingly good.

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