Kenya's Enchanted Island

The many layers of Lamu art and craft

 
More pictorial guidebook than art book, Lamu: Kenya's Enchanted Island presents a beautiful photographic primer of the main island of the Lamu Archipelago, located off the East coast of Kenya. Authors George and Lorna Abungu present it as an exotic island with a relaxed vibe and a dash of mystery thrown into its cultural and historical mix. 
 
Lamu is primarily known for its Swahili culture and for its fusion of various civilizations – the product of a complex history that includes an invasion in the 16th century by the Portuguese who monopolized the East African trade routes. By the late 17th century the Omani Arabs ousted the Portuguese, and during their rule Lamu entered a "golden age," becoming a center of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as trade. Towards the end of the Omani rule in the late 19th century, British and German colonial powers arrived in East Africa. 
 
Historic context aside, the strength of Lamu is in its chapters on arts and crafts and its luscious photographs taken by noted photographers Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, David Coulson and Nigel Pavitt. 
 
The book's highlights include the unique the Swahili architecture—a distinctive style that reflects both Arab and Asian influences as seen in the vaulted spaces, intricate plasterwork, arches, and woodwork with foliage patterns and motifs, as well as Arab inscriptions.  The island's notable structures include numerous mosques that range in size from small and intimate to more expansive Friday mosques.  Apart from worshipping these also serve as social spaces in which the men resolve community issues or socialize and exchange stories.  
 
Typically, the external façades of these mosques are fairly plain, but the interior includes ornate mihrabs or prayer niches, featuring trifoliate arches that face north towards Mecca. Ancient mosques that are peppered along the archipelago have more detailed mihrabs that are carved from coral that's been mined from the Indian Ocean.
 
The range of arts and crafts found in Lamu are plentiful and include elaborate plasterwork decoration, carved and inlaid chairs, carved wooden doors, beds, and chests. Lamu is also recognized for its traditional embroidered hats called koifas, as well as woven mats, gorgeous metalwork in gold and silver, and calligraphy. Many of the traditions and techniques show elements of the decorative arts of India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. 
 
Woodcarvings, an important source of income, were first introduced by Hindu craftsmen who used floral motifs following Muslim strictures that don't allow the use of human or animal representation. These carvings are seen on doors, headboards, chairs, chests, and tables. 
 
Among Lamu's better known furniture shapes is the high-backed chair or the kiti cha enzi. Considered a collector's item and mostly found in wealthier Swahili homes, the chair has an angular form and is made from hardwood—mostly ebony—with string panels and ivory or bone inlay.  Other furniture featured in the book includes carved beds whose styles have been influenced by India, and turned and lacquered wood pili pili and samadari beds. Wooden chests decorated with brass are referred to as "Zanzibari chests;" the smaller ones are used as jewelry boxes and are popular among tourists. 
 
In spite of their important contribution to the arts of the island, the authors note that many of the crafts are on the wane since many of the elders or wazee are no longer passing the traditions to younger generations. Western customs are also invading the island as satellite dishes and the Internet have a strong hold on Lamu's youth. However, the annual Lamu Cultural Festival and the National Museums of Kenya (via the Swahili Cutlural Center) are offering training programs that will preserve a place in the modern world for Swahili craft. 
 
For arts and crafts enthusiasts, Lamu: Kenya's Enchanted Island provides enough information to pique one's curiosity at a very superficial level. However, for armchair travelers it's the ideal book that will keep readers entertained for several hours and might inspire some to actually travel and visit the island. 
 
 
Lamu: Kenya's Enchanted Island
By George and Lorna Abungu
Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2009
290 pages; 250+ photographs and illustrations

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