From a Grisaille of wilderness emerges an ancient creature, clad in its own armour, head hung low, one leg before the other, almost shy. A duo of weapons, its horns, blunted by humans in kindness, to avoid attracting the attention of poachers.
This is a painting done by Ugandan born Karen Laurence Rowe, who spent childhood years in Tanzania and most of her working life in Kenya, with a short stint in South Africa. Sudan – as he was known, was the last wild, male northern white rhino left on earth. He died this March. She has immortalised him in this watercolour that will be won by a lucky raffle ticket owner soon for Helping Rhinos.
An equally evocative piece is the emergence of the great tusker, Satao from a cloud of dust. Flanked by his askaris, this is his last stand. Satao, one of the largest elephants in Africa was killed by a poisoned arrow in 2014 in Tsavo for his tusks.
They were most likely sold off by a terrorist organisation to some far off punter to whom owning a piece of nature is more important than leaving it for future generations to understand.
In her Karen studio, surrounded by her dogs, she shows me an organised white and says its not the tidiest, and indicates that the lovely light coming through the high windows doesn’t last all day.
Naturally discerning, she tells me that her painting developed in a series of accidents. Self taught, she began selling paintings out of a need to earn money. With a secretarial and graphic design background from South Africa, she began by illustrating dogs and horses. In her first exhibition, thirty years ago, inspired by Africa’s wild fauna and flora, she sold most of her paintings on the opening night.
But, now she can afford to help conservation by donating some paintings to the effort. Our conversation flits from population explosion, veganism, the pollution in our oceans to her childhood spent in Tanzania where hyenas and leopards would hide under their house’s raised verandah. Her warmth extends to her grandchildren who’ve just left before I arrived.
Karen’s new painting takes her to her favourite apes from the surrounds of Borneo, in an awareness effort for the orangutans and wildlife photographer Margot Ragett’s “Remembering Great Apes” event in London. A mother looks out towards us, her baby peeking over her shoulder and in vivid contrast to their orange bodies is her blue face. ‘The sad in my eyes’ is a piece about defeat against the burgeoning needs of humans. The painting is to be auctioned along with others.
Now well known, her works are in collections far and wide, fetching around 17,000 to 19,000 pounds at auction.
Her colours are saturated nature, capturing Africa’s intensity with a softness that looks equally good shone by either the northern or southern hemisphere’s light.
More recently, her paintings have been printed onto scarves by Mia Kora, in an initiative dubbed “Frame it or wear it” by England based, Kenyan born Priya Shah. An artist herself she has been nominated twice for Wildlife Artist of the Year with the David Shephard Foundation, an award that Karen won in 2012 in the endangered species category with her Rothschild Mirage, and also in 2017 – the personal choice award depicting elephants.
When aspirin had not yet been discovered, and rhinos roamed the earth in large herds, their horns and even buffalo horns – purported to have the same medicinal qualities, were used to bring dangerously high temperatures in infants under control.
Much like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda – India’s atavistic counterpart used animal parts from endangered species as did traditional African medicines. Traditional practitioners have had herbal substitutes for these ingredients since then as well, should faunal sources be unavailable. Recipes today, have changed even more with the scarcity of animals and peoples’ changing values.
Science and Education may have eradicated the need for older medicines, but there will always be people who for a variety of reasons, like desperation and affordability will try anything to get hold of an animal skin, bone or horn.
Warriors for animals regard the wiping out of animal species with the same fervour as ethnic cleansing, but you don’t have to. If you appreciate art and love the natural beauty of our planet, you’ll enjoy wearing these scarves. Then, perhaps tell your friends about the fascinating creatures that make the world a better place.