Art

Spotted – 3

Maasailand in general and the Transmara area beyond were a great source of new things for us in Kenya. Spotting red clad Maasai, carrying their traditional weapons, walking about everywhere took a while to get used to! In addition, there were plenty of wild animals to be seen not to mention the beautiful landscape that was all new to us at the time.

Intona Ranch was sited at the heart of the Transmara. The unfenced farm [1] of eight hundred hectares was -I believe- a gift of the Maasai to Joe Murumbi (see Joe Zazarte Murumbi in References) as a recognition for his service to Kenya (he was the son of a Maasai mother). The farm was a green park by the Migori River where riverine forest was present and where we used to go in the evenings to watch the flocks of Silvery-cheeked hornbills (Bycanistes brevis) returning to their favourite roosting perches.

The Migori River (in flood).
The fig tree that marked the entrance to Intona Ranch.

Scattered clumps of forest, many associated with very large termite mounds, with plenty of rare orchids speckled the landscape. This green oasis was maintained by rains that fell most afternoons due to the proximity of Lake Victoria. Apart from keeping the vegetation going, the evening storms produced the most striking sunsets that would turn red when the grass fires were raging around.

Part of Intona ranch.

The Transmara could be seen as an extension at a slightly higher altitude of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve and therefore the farm was inhabited by all species present in the reserve. There were also some “specials” like the Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) that also inhabited the Migori River area and the African Blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda) that was found throughout the area to name just two. At the farm there were a family of resident cheetah that we often saw as well as lion and leopard that we sometimes heard.

One of Intona’s cheetah resting.

In the Transmara, the Maasai coexisted with the wild animals, not only by herds of harmless antelope and zebra but also migrating elephants and buffalo, in addition to the large predators, including numerous hyena that were seen and heard every night.

In sum, the ranch was like a dream come true for nature lovers as it was really a game park where Joe bred a few heads of cattle. I was truly lucky to work there and enjoy his hospitality for several years!

If the above was not sufficiently stunning, the house that Joe and Sheila had built there was, to put it mildly, unexpected and it took a while to get used to its presence once you had spotted it! We were used to people building amazing houses in Kenya such as the Djinn Palace [2] in the shores of Lake Naivasha (now a hotel) or the uninhabited Italian Villa [3] neat Thika that our friend Paul discovered and we explored.

One can only imagine the work involved in building such a large place in a remote location following the very high standards that Joe and Sheila must have placed for the architects to follow. Although I came to know the house well, I never counted the number of rooms it had but thirty-five rooms are mentioned by the press [4].

The front of Murumbi’s house at Intona.

There was even a small chapel and it was only recently that, through his close friend Alan Donovan, I learnt of its origin. He wrote: “Joe and Sheila loved their dogs (I can confirm that, Ed.). One of the dogs had nearly died and Joe had vowed to build a chapel if he survived. When the dog was retrieved from death’s jaw, the chapel was duly built for the staff at the ranch. The priest was called to bless the new chapel” [5]

What I can say is that the very large and white house was built following the style found at the coast of the Indian Ocean and its outside doors had probably come from Lamu. It had all necessary items to enjoy life such as a large swimming pool, a couple of patios of different styles and verandahs strategically sited to catch the sun or shade at different times of the day. The roof was high and the rooms were very large, much more than I had seen until then!

In the seventies, Joe and Alan Donovan created African Heritage, a fine antique collecting entreprise that yielded some unique artifacts and became Africa’s first art gallery in Nairobi and pioneered the retail of art and craft [6]. Joe and Sheila had their main house in Muthaiga, an exclusive neighbourhood in Nairobi where they kept most of their art but a lot of these spilled over to the Transmara.

At the Intona house there were several works of art both, African and European. Among the latter there were several large oil paintings by some of the Dutch Masters (I was told). African art was all over, and this included Lamu chairs, different masks and an old trunk with an amazing lock. One of my favourites was what a called a Juju man [7]. This fierce-looking carving was parked in the hall until one day it disappeared. Later I learnt that my friend Alan had helped Joe to carry it to the UK where it was sold.

The sitting room.

With so much art around, the house resembled a true museum but my interest was mainly in the library composed of two adjoining rooms with roof to floor and wall to wall bookshelves that held a treasure in books I had not seen before. It was rummaging through this true treasure that I spent most of the free time I had, mainly after sunset.

The library had windows to the front of the house where a large telescope pointed to the clear night skies of the Transmara. At first glance it revealed memorabilia of Joe’s political life, including various decorations and many pictures of Joe with other political players of the time. I remember pictures of him with Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie and Julius Nyerere to mention those I can still “see” today.

Once I assimilated the memorabilia I focused on the books. These were mainly dealing with Africana, and they included most first editions of all major books published on Africa and, particularly, on Kenya, a list too long to be mentioned here and one that I now do not recall that well but many were antiques. However, having spent many hours delving through books with and without Joe, I still remember author proofs that had been sent to him for comments prior to their publication by various famous authors.

I vividly remember the evening that, despite his mobility problems [8], Joe invited me to the library “I wish to show you some special things” he said as I followed him to the library. He headed straight to one of the bookshelves located on the left wall and pulled out a large shallow drawer. It contained postal stamps! Joe became very enthusiastic and started to show me his collection.

He showed me the first stamp produced by Kenya Uganda and Tanzania in 1935 during the times of King George V. He had the complete set of Kenya stamps that included all first day issues as well as loose stamps. He then opened another drawer where he removed several Penny Black specimens, the first stamp issued in the UK in 1840 and all the ones that followed it up to the present date. He was extremely pleased with his collections!

Joe Murumbi in his library. Credit: https://www.the-star.co.ke/

Joe donated all his books and documents, numbering several thousands, to the Kenya nation. Among these are more than six thousand books published before the 1900s, and a rare original manuscript from David Livingstone. His books occupy the Joe Murumbi Gallery, a large area in the ground floor of the Kenya National Archives library. He also donated his African stamp collections, believed to be the most important in the world, after the Queen of England’s collection!

Sadly, Joe died in 1990 and Sheila in 2000. A Memorial Garden at the Nairobi City Park was established by the Murumbi Trust where, fortunately, they are both kept to be remembered as they deserve.

As for the magnificent house, before departing from Kenya I failed to convince the Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology to negotiate for it to become a training centre. Regretfully, the house started to deteriorate after Joe’s death and it is now, I believe, a subject of a legal wrangling. After severl years of neglect the house is now almost a ruin from which all movable fittings have been taken and most of it is overgrown by vegetation. A sad end to a beautiful place that I first “spotted” in 1981.

Credit of the three photos above: https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos

[1] An old plow track was all that demarcated the ranch.

[2] “During the colonial era, “The Djinn Palace” was “where things usually were very lively” for the Happy Valley set, according to Ulf Aschan.[7] It was built for Ramsay-Hill’s wife, Molly (née Edith Mildred Maude; 1893–1939), who had an affair with and later married Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll“. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oserian (Seen on 4 July 2021).

[3] What we called the “Italian Villa” was abandoned, complete with underwater illuminated pool, bath on the top of the roof from where the view of the Yatta plateau was amazing and its own cells where we were told by the caretaker that employees were locked as punishment. I read somewhere that its rich owner tried to surprise his fiancée that was driving a convertible along the Mombasa Road with a low flight past and killed her by accident. I have been searching for info on this villa and its history but, so far, fruitlessly.

[4], [5] and [8] See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/lifestyle/2001259735/vice-presidents-mansion-now-home-to-wild-animals and https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos Consulted on 28 June 2021.

[6] See: https://africanheritagehouse.info/portfolio-item/murumbi-legacy/ and https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/alan-donovan-my-journey-through-african-art-and-culture-african-heritage-house/jwLyrn0e9lfwJg?hl=en – Both consulted on 28 June 2021 for more information.

[7] We used this name meaning “magic man” as we thought it had some supernatural power. I googled and learnt that it was Nkondi, one of the mystical statuettes made by the Kongo people of the Congo region and considered aggressive. The name means hunter and they are believed to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies.

[8] Joe was recovering from a stroke that he had suffered sometime before I met him.

A Challenging Encounter (with art)

This animal "salad" was made with wood pieces. Included because my blog is on wildlife!

This animal “salad” was made with wood pieces. Included because my blog is on wildlife!

Restoring my family house in Carmelo, Uruguay is an important ingredient -together with blogging- prescribed by my children to delay the dreaded brain paralysis and avoid terminal boredom due to retirement. The closest hardware shop became a very frequented place as I was constantly looking for tools and materials needed for the task. To my satisfaction, I discovered that a new shop had been opened just fifty metres from my house and I visited it

The shop -that also sells house ware and ornaments- belongs to José (Pepe) and Rosa Castro. The latter takes care of it and deals with customers. They have a teenager son called Alexandro. After a few visits I met Pepe and we gradually got to know each other. He was -rather unusually- interested in my life in Africa and I listened to what he did. We lied to each other a lot and we knew it! One day Pepe convinced me to linger a few minutes so he could show me his work. I luckily accepted and I was privileged to gain a glimpse of his life’s achievement.

Noah's Ark.

Noah’s Ark.

I am aware that by writing this post I am completely deviating from the usual wildlife-related topics and that I am entering a territory I know little about. I hope you find this interesting. In any case, I promise you that my next post will be on the usual nature-related subject (what else?).

Pepe was born in Pontevedra, Spain 75 years ago and arrived in Uruguay in 1957. He worked as a cabinetmaker (“ebanista” in Spanish) in some of the finest furniture makers in Montevideo for many years while he studied technical and artistic drawing and various painting techniques. He started sculpting in 1965 and he gradually increased his output until his retirement when his life became almost solely focused on his work. More details can be found

http://www.escultorjosecastro.com/index.

As a veterinarian and a scientist the understanding of art is not my thing and not even several years in Rome managed to change this too much. For this reason I like what I like but I can also appreciate the work that goes into creating works of art! In Pepe’s case, despite being “brain-impaired” when it comes to art, I not only like a lot of what he did (and does) but also appreciate the work involved in achieving it!

What can I say? Its title is "Climbing".

What can I say? Its title is “Climbing”.

I learnt that, so far, Pepe has created over eight hundred pieces (carvings, artistic chairs, wood panels, boxes and other items) and I could see several styles although I am unable to comment or seriously criticize them!

HIs creativity outruns storage space!

HIs creativity outruns storage space!

Fortunately, as he got to know me, he started to show me his work and to explain it to me. To be able to look at art with the creator showing it to you is out of this world and I felt -aware of the possible differences- like a friend of Picasso being able to question him about details of his masterpieces!

Pepe explaining a work about Carmelo.

Pepe explaining a work about Carmelo.

Pepe describing another piece.

Pepe describing another piece.

Pepe has exhibited his work several times, he has been the subject of interviews and published accounts of his work also exist. Leafing through these I learnt that his style of work is defined as “Baroque” and that many of them deal with his life experiences and/or tell a story. Some of his works are so elaborate and full of detail that it takes several examinations to fully take in their meaning and detail.

Several pieces represent episodes of Pepe's life. This is a "haunted" house he secretly visited as a child.

Several pieces represent episodes of Pepe’s life. This is a “haunted” house he secretly visited as a child.

Since meeting him I have now talked to Pepe a great deal and also watched him working. Although he appears lighthearted and funny most of the time, when it comes to his work he transforms himself into a different man, guided by his inspiration and aims for almost impossible perfection! However, he transmits his mischievous view of life into his work that often has a jocose element in it that can become satiric in several of his works (keep reading!).

A great chair is not enough for Pepe.

A great chair is not enough for Pepe.

Not just a beautifully crafted chair...

Another example of a chair according to Pepe…

One day he called me, as he had to show me “something”. He took me to his workshop and, seeing it for the first time, I was really impressed. It is inside his “Cave” as he calls his workshop, that Pepe becomes the artist. “It is here that I feel really comfortable, it gives me pleasure, I have fun, I play”. This is his secret kingdom and where his ideas get transformed into art. It is also here that he keeps a vast collection of carpentry tools that are his pride and joy and are worth seeing.

Pepe's tool collection.

Pepe’s tool collection.

Once inside the Cave I noticed many pieces of wood and roots of several types, origins and shapes that are patiently waiting until Pepe decides to gives them the life or death he “sees” for them. In some, the final output is starting to emerge as Pepe works his way through them.

Inside his "Treasure Cave".

Inside his “Treasure Cave”.

I spotted a large tree trunk base with its roots still attached, to which he has wrapped carved branches and sticks of different colours. Questioned about it he said “I am looking at it and considering several options. I do not know yet. I have about ten ideas. The one on the surface at the moment is to place dwarfs peering through its holes. I do not know yet but it will be something creepy”.

Then he picked up another piece and starts to showed it to me. “Look” he said, “there is a tail here and a leg there” and suddenly, but only for a fleeting moment, I began to see what he saw. And then he said, “it is not a normal animal, it is some kind of a creature” and then he loost me again as I stayed with the tail and the leg and my conventional animal! Only then I managed to recognize the burnt and dirty dried fig tree we collected together!

A simple dried and half-burnt root (collected together) starts to gain shape.

A simple dried and half-burnt root (collected together) starts to gain shape.

When I told him, he laughed and moved on to show me the twelve “special” dining chairs he is making or his on-going depiction of the execution of another creature in the electric chair. “The victim will not be normal, it will be a being or something but I do not yet know” he said, and then added “it will be tied to the chair”.

"I do not know, it is a monster of some kind"

Pepe showing me another piece. The electric chair project to his left.

We walked through his house where his finished work is displayed. He said, “When the conditions are right, I would like to start a Foundation where not only I can display my work but also teach the young generations”. I can only silently hope that he succeeds and promise myself to help him in achieving his dream. Watching his finished works I can see that -like other artists- he can do what I consider to be “conventional” and beautiful sculptures as well as wonderful chairs that he decorates with his own unique creations of many shapes and forms.

As he knows my animal preferences and he picked a simple cow from a shelf to explain that he left it partly undone so that people could see it in different ways. It is however clear that he put great detail into it as, for instance, the milk vein is clearly there!

"Do not bother me, it is just a cow"

“Do not bother me, it is just a cow”

Some of his work I can understand (and admire) straight away (although more careful observation reveals more detail). Among these is the “Babel Tower” and “Noah’s Ark”. Even the clear animal suffering that “Extinction” depicts is evident to me as its subjects really reflect the agony of their fate! Other work passes over my head and it is only after Pepe’s patient explanations and comments that I start seeing things and interpreting what he means.

Extinction.

“Extinction”

Extiction.

“Extinction” from another angle.

I see several styles, elaborate carvings, combinations of wood and paint -my favourites- and others. Clearly “Climbing” at its near two metres tall is one of his greatest achievements but there are others that although smaller are no less magnificent: wooden boxes that fit into each other like Russian dolls, colourful wooden “cubistic” jigsaw puzzles made of wood trimmings, old silk thread cabinets filled with carved world famous figures many of whom you can easily recognize as you do with the five Uruguayan politicians that he wickedly calls “Four Politicians”!

Some works follows the options that a piece of wood offers, but in others the wood follows what Pepe wants to get out of it. I think this simply depends on the mood and will power he has on the day he chooses to work them!

We talked so much and I became so engrossed in his work that I got back home brain dead but happy to have spent time with him and to have a few -rather poor- pictures to illustrate the post. However, I also notice that I never saw what he wanted to show me in the first place! I decided to visit him the next day.

So the following day I returned and he showed me the piece. It is a wooden cabinet and when he starts opening it his wicked side takes over and, before I see it, I understand. I am in it, together with him and a crocodile inside a cauldron and surrounded by animals and African people. Somehow all my pestering of Pepe about Africa has curdled into art, even if clearly tongue in cheek. I am proud of being part of his work, although shown in rather uncomfortable circumstances… However, I now join the ranks of Don Quijote, Jesus, God and the Devil among others depicted in his works!

A simple old cabinet...

A simple old cabinet…

The cabinet open reveals its sinister contents...

Opening the cabinet reveals its sinister contents… (The Bushsnob is also shown above for reference purposes)