and now in words he puts these portraits into context and the result is a wonderful portrait of one man’s Africa.”
— PAUL THEROUX
The Trouble with Africa: Stories from a Safari Camp
Publisher: Penguin Books (SA) (Pty) Ltd / Viking
he Trouble with Africa by Vic Guhrs (published by Penguin Books), has recently been released in South Africa. It’s a passionate collection of short stories about life in a safari camp. This beautifully presented book includes images from his work as a wildlife artist, as well as several photographs.
The stories are very readable and full of rich detail, very much like his art. It’s easy to get lost in the sights and sounds of Africa while reading this book.
Who is Vic Guhrs?
Biography adapted from the website of the ©2005 The Everard Read Gallery.
Vic Guhrs left his childhood home in Hamburg, Germany at the age of 22 to see the Africa of his boyhood dreams. In 1977, after having studied art in Johannesburg and a long stint as a commercial artist, he and his wife Pam and two small daughters moved to the bush camp in Zambia of his famous father-in-law, game warden and professional hunter, Norman Carr.
Guhrs held his first solo exhibition in 1974 in Johannesburg. Now, instead of being wakened by the street noise of a busy European city, Vic Guhrs is stirred from his dreams by the night calls, grunts and coughs of the sulking predators that stalk his backyard in the Luangwa National Park. Thousands of miles from trendy galleries and art openings of his urban contemporaries, Guhrs works in his studio in the solitude of the African bush, living close enough to his subjects to hear their heartbeats. Unlike too many wildlife artists who purchase static images from photographers and transform them into animal anatomy within plausible settings, Guhrs is a direct witness to the fleeting but immutable daily dramas of the animal kingdom and recreates them as enduring works of art.
His studio looks onto an ever-changing oxbow lagoon – a dry riverbed for part of the year, but mostly filled with lush grasses for grazing antelope, home to hippos and crocodiles, and a veritable flitting rainbow of wading birds, bee-eaters and kingfishers. When the water is gone, elephants and giraffes and noisy, brash baboons wander within spying distance of Guhrs’ canvases and paintbrushes.
“I never think of my paintings as animal portraiture or zoological illustrations, even though there are formal elements of design and composition in them,” says the soft-spoken, borderline, shy artist. “It is the visual dynamism, the metaphysical and emotional aspects of confronting an animal that interest me … the feeling you get when you’re alone in the bush and suddenly there’s a lion or buffalo, and the hair on your neck stands straight up.”
In spite of his isolation from the urban art scene, Mark Read of The Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg places Vic Guhrs in the ranks of major contemporary African artists rather than in the mainstream of so-called “Wildlife artists”, whom he accuses of endlessly rehashing scenes of majestically tusked elephants dozing under umbrella acacias or sagacious leopards nonchalantly draped over branches in front of a setting sun. “Vic’s work can be equally appreciated in New York or London or Sydney or Tokyo because he is an artist, not just an amateur with a paintbrush in search of an appealing wildlife subject.”
Although Guhrs does not include the species homo sapiens in his paintings, that predator’s influence on the African landscape is strongly felt.
“I never forget how closely human evolution is linked to animals. Our ancestors grew up alongside them, hunted them and were hunted by them,” says Guhrs, who has found a great audience for his work at hunting expositions like Safari Club International and GameCoin Conventions, which he regularly attends. He thrives on the constant contact with his prehistoric ancestors.
“No matter how complacent one becomes about animals, a few nights in the bush with lions roaring and hyenas calling will stimulate inevitable ancient and primeval reactions, demonstrating each time just how close to each other we still are. That’s why I paint animals.”
Occasionally, his canvases provoke the viewer to weigh his position on decidedly emotional issues like hunting, poaching and culling, forcing him to banish his citified contemporary complacency about the nature of nature – including homo sapiens – and confront the African cosmos’s harsh but awe-inspiring visual poetry.
Although a basically impressionist artist living in the midst of an infinite wealth of colours, Guhrs tends to allow only a limited number onto his palette. He confines himself to a muted and narrow tonal area – the browns, sepias, duns and ambers of his Africa’s dry season. Subtle changes in hue, tint and shade are used to demonstrate movement, such as the high grass being pushed aside by elephants. They also serve to bind together a ferris-wheel of images in his montage-like compositions, preserving the canvas’s visual balance.
Guhrs’s work is becoming less obviously figurative: the forms are increasingly wed to the surrounding vegetation and often seen just emerging from the dusty yellow light, camouflaging the precise silhouette and thereby evoking the mystery associated with elusive species like kudu, eland and bongo. The result is a kind of synthesis of the various elements of each specie’s unique ecosystem.
Every person who puts his foot on African soil is transformed by the sudden stepping back into the very fabric of life from which humankind arose. Amongst the animals, one gropes to understand one’s place in history and in the universe. Great wildlife art that is based on personal experience and an understanding of the whole essence of the African bush is not only a witness to a vanishing world, but helps us both to discover and to remember that place – even when we are safely ensconced in an armchair at home.