Andrea Bergart and Joe Ballweg, New York City based artists, painted a dhow sailboat sail during their stay at the Cuevas Tilleard Artist’s residency in Lamu, Kenya. Founded in the 14th century, Lamu has retained its traditional Swahili character, its Islamic architecture and conservative Muslim tradition. Dhow sail boats, found along the coast of East Africa and India, are hand crafted wooden boats with canvas sails used for trade, transportation and leisure. The artists’ intentions were to collaborate on an image influenced by their new surroundings in Lamu in a format that would engage the local community with the residency. Seeing the strong connection between the town and the sea made the use of a dhow sail a natural vehicle for their art. The abstract imagery set the sail apart from the advertising based designs sometimes found on sails. The use of nylon streamers further shifted the sail’s presence from utility to art.
Local furniture designer, Moran Munyuthe of Saba Studios sat down with Andrea and Joe to talk about their artwork and their recent project in Lamu.
Moran Munyuthe: How did you end up in Lamu?
Andrea Bergart: We heard about Lamu through Caroline Tilleard at Cuevas Tilleard gallery. She and her business partner Anna Maria started an artist residency program in a large house just outside of old town Lamu and they have been inviting people to come and make work. I’ve spent a lot of time in West Africa, but I was excited to travel to East Africa for the first time.
MM: A sail is a very specific thing to paint. How did the idea come about?
AB: We came up with the idea to paint an image on a sail a few years ago. We tried to figure out a collaboration with a sail maker but funding a custom dacron sail was too complicated and expensive. After hearing how important sailing is in Lamu life and the fact that their sails are made of canvas similar to what artists use, I knew it would be a great place to execute the project.
MM: The sail project was very successful. It was nice to see something so familiar depicted in a different light. I think this re-appropriation of something so every day in Lamu life is what made the project feel exciting yet relatable.
AB: That’s cool! Yeah, this project felt like an extension to my painted cement truck barrels that drive around New York City- I love the idea of interjecting art into daily life and surprising people with art on functioning vehicles.
Joe Ballweg: We were interested in having some kind of interaction with the local population and this was a way to open up a dialog of sorts. Unlike Andrea, I’m not accustomed to making art displayed in a public setting. I was wondering how it would feel to present something to people who didn’t make the deliberate decision to go look at art. In the end, all my concerns went away and it was just fun sailing on the dhow with our sail up having people waving from other boats and from shore. The reception seemed totally positive.
MM: The idea that daily life and art should overlap is very relevant to Lamu. The island maintains a strong connection to the art and crafts which influences how daily tasks such as cooking, boat building, sail making, palm weaving are performed. What do you plan on doing with the sail, do you intend on painting more sails in Lamu?
JB: The sail was gifted to Nawaf, the captain of the dhow, who helped coordinate the project. We were excited that he liked the outcome and is happy to sail it. Apparently, the sail has been bringing him more business from people who want to go on sunset sails. Nawaf is such a mythical character. Having our sail on his boat couldn’t have been a better match as far as I’m concerned! We would love to paint another sail but there are no plans as of yet.
AB: Nawaf is very cool – he water ski’s daily, jumps out of helicopters into the ocean, steers the dhow with his toes and puts out such good vibes. I think we found the chillest captain in Lamu. He keeps me updated on instagram with new images of the sail. It’s great to see a revolving audience and to see so many people enjoying it! I hope the sail inspires others to create in Lamu.
JB: Speaking of which, how are things going with your new store in old town Lamu? I love how contemporary your furniture design feels and at the same time you can still see the traditional Swahili roots. Actually, much of Lamu seems steeped in visual consideration that stems from the past, but I wonder if the idea of contemporary art is still pretty foreign?
MM: I think people in Lamu have an appreciation for craft and beauty as people here are really visual. For example, if you walk around in old town you can see finely carved doors, which were a status symbol but are also meant to please the eye.
JB: Those doors are incredible – really skilled woodworking. With all this tradition, I wonder if Lamu has a contemporary art community.
MM: I don’t think there is a contemporary scene per se, but Lamu seems to draw those seeking for a space to create and explore; a little breathing space from everyday life and responsibilities.
AB: Yeah, it was quickly apparent that there is a tradition of considered aesthetics. The architecture, the wood carving, the way people dress and decorate their homes. Even the public walls are beautifully covered with pieces of coral.
MM: This is especially interesting when considering Lamu’s visual language which is a consequence of contact with different cultures; Arabic, Bantu, Indian and even Portuguese due to its historic position as a trading town. Our furniture reflects this hybridity with traces of mid-century design, traditional Arabic design and Bantu influences.
JB: What kind of reaction are you getting from people about your furniture?
MM: Interest has been growing. For example, last month we were invited to the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary fair in Johannesburg as guest exhibitors. Right now, we are finalizing preparations to open our showroom. I think there is something attractive about how we work, which is slow but with attention to detail. We want to create an atmosphere of escape, that is rooted in local culture.
AB: What you said about an appreciation of craftsmanship was very apparent when we worked with Nawaf on the sail project. It was nice to see him take such great care of his hand made boat. There’s a kind of respect that you can see when you watch him sail. It reminds me of how horse riders treat their horses. This type of care for an inanimate object seemed special. We’re happy that our sail is staying in Lamu in good hands.
MM: What challenges did you face whilst doing the project and how did you work around them?
JB: Well, as you must know, getting materials in Lamu can be difficult and as a foreigner finding simple things like needles and thread can be a multi-day task. Another big challenge was the climate. We were painting the sail outside and we had to work around the heat of the day which starts up early- around 7am. After that being in direct sunlight was not an option! We also had to pay attention to the nightly rain showers since we were using water based paints that could be washed away in a heavy downpour if they didn’t have time to fully dry.
AB: Those challenges were relatively easy to work around, but we had a moment of absolute despair right at the beginning of the project. We made the mistake of leaving the unpainted sail on the floor of our studio overnight. When we went to move the sail the next day, we found hundreds of black ants gathering their pupae under our beautiful sail! After seeing that undulating mound of activity, I quickly walked out of the studio vowing never to go back in there! Luckily, once Joe dragged the sail outside most of the ants dispersed never to be seen again.