Mount Kilimanjaro is both an iconic and clichéd part of Africa’s landscape. Artists have portrayed its massive snow-capped heights for a century and much of the work is not that artistic. Paintings for the “jet trade” typically depict elephants or Masai warriors in the foreground with the mountain looming above.
Niles Nordquist and Aron Belka take a different tack. They are part of a new mini-wave of modern Western artists who interpret Kilimanjaro in refreshing ways. Nordquist and Belka couldn’t be more different in their approaches. Nordquist 67 climbed the mountain, slept in the crater’s minus 18 degree temperatures and took 1,000 digital images before creating his Kilimanjaro series. He climbed with Tusker and was tested physically and stretched artistically.
Belka never left his New Orleans studio for his Kilimanjaro commission. His inspiration came from Google Earth satellite images of the mountain. Yet his abstract painting has had a profound impact on its commissioner, Gene Moses who has the painting hanging in his Washington, D.C. home. Belka’s bird’s eye view painting of Kilimanjaro reminds Moses of his honeymoon climb when upon reaching the summit, clouds and freezing rain greeted him. It wasn’t pretty or comfortable, but the teamwork and sense of accomplishment made it magical. Belka’s artwork rekindles the experience.
“It provokes in me an introspection of how insignificant even mighty Kilimanjaro can seem from above,” Moses said. “The color scheme corresponds with the majestic vastness of the savanna, with bursts of brown and orange emanating from the amber-like lions and gazelles leaping from the grasslands. The whites are alternately clouds and the disappearing snows of the summit. The seemingly timeless snows that might soon be gone forever; the clouds that grace the summit much of the year, but appear as mere puffs from above.”
Niles’ Old School Vision
Nordquist has been painting for 50 years and his work has taken him throughout the tropics, the Western U.S. mountains and deserts where he has camped and climbed. Raised in Montana, he is based in Idaho and never paints from his imagination, but uses photographs and sketches along with his visual memory to transcribe his climbs to large canvas studio paintings. It’s creatively dangerous to paint from digital images; and to capture Kilimanjaro in oils it’s necessary for the artist not to be fooled by a digital camera’s highly modified images. “The sky is not that intense. The details are in the shadows and you have to back out the manipulated images and let the dust settle before you begin to paint.” Climbing the mountain is too strenuous for a painter to bring easel and oils to actually paint while on a trek of Kilimanjaro,” he added.
His 2010 Kilimanjaro trek led to five paintings that range from $2,500 to $12,000. He considers his best paintings of the mountain to be “Crater Nocturn” and “Barranco Glory” and they could only have been painted by someone who spent nine days and summitted the mountain.
“Barranco is a fantastic place, the peak is above you and all of a sudden there is a tropical outcropping, where water is seeping allowing for lobelia and senecio plants to grow. It’s a jungle land on the mountain and nowhere else do you see that. Juxtapose that with the clouds and the mountains, it’s enticing.” His painting shows Tusker’s encampment tucked away on a grassy escarpment but the painting’s main features are a small grouping of towering palms that are overpowered by the looming Barranco Wall and the higher peaks above.
Crater Nocturn is Nordquist’s chilling depiction of Kilimanjaro. A small group of insignificant trekkers cross the crater floor at night, above them looms the glacier bathed in moonlight with the peaks and stars a muted dark blue above. Few if any have ever painted or seen that frozen night scene and it is a testament to Kilimanjaro’s arctic beauty, it’s deadly power and Nordquist’s willingness to forego creature comforts to be inspired.
Nordquist said he chose Kilimanjaro because of its uniqueness. “There is no place like it – physically – to capture. Where else is there an arctic mountain in the middle of the tropics in such a foreign but friendly culture. It leads to a flood of experiences.”
He chose Tusker because of its medical credentials, “you don’t want to roll the dice in a place where you could die.” When his wife Judy injured her knee on the descent, Nordquist was amazed to see six porters and a guide respond with a collapsible litter and take her two miles to get treatment in record time. “I ran as fast as I could to catch up to them, but couldn’t.”
Nordquist has sold several of his Kilimanjaro paintings and plans to do another series. He went from Kilimanjaro to the Serengeti and did four wildlife paintings. “I’ve got another five or six Kilimanjaro paintings in the hopper. I’ve sold a few but the economic measure of a trip is having the paintings pay for the trip and so far they haven’t.” Nordquist said without sounding overly disappointed by the trip’s experiences and results.
Tusker Trail features Niles Nordquist’s paintings on the cover of its annual trekking catalog.
Belka’s View from Above
Belka is half Nordquist’s age and his art is thoroughly wedded to today’s techno-logic and turbulent times. His abstract paintings depict recognizable places like Kilimanjaro but he shows them through black and white satellite views that he reinterprets to make them his own. Even though Kilimanjaro is among the most recognizable peaks in the world he makes it unrecognizable yet tells its story. To Belka the earth is art with many different interpretations and meanings.
“I don’t want it to be recognizable, but rather to bring a different meaning to that location. Kilimanjaro was a visual experience and I did it in colors that were my brother-in-law’s favorites. It was a happy moment for them (honeymoon trip) and I bathed the summit in bright sunny yellow.”
Belka’s work is not often that cheery. He now is exploring ways to present the violence in Homs, Syria and wants to further paint Kilimanjaro and show how environmental changes are affecting the mountain. His paintings include a New Zealand volcano where clear cut logging has created artistic lines under and around the caldera.
While Belka has never been to Africa his wife Lina does research on Lassa fever in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. His Kilimanjaro painting is valued at $3,000 and part of the proceeds from the sale of his signed prints go to the Kilimanjaro Education Foundation, a non-profit that works to improve school conditions in the villages neighboring Kilimanjaro. A print of Belka’s work is displayed in the Tanzania village of Olutroto.
The original is in Washington and Moses remains on the mountain through it.
“I lived in Kenya in 1997, so I had already seen Kilimanjaro from afar, and admired photos and artwork of the beautiful mountain for years. Aron’s painting is a mystery for any observer. On its own, it isn’t necessarily Kilimanjaro — it is a beautiful contrast and cooperation of colors, textures, and geometry. It is powerful, yet soothing. There is life, but it is calm. Each observer has his or her own “Aha” moment — some are literal, seeing the peaks from above, while others are figurative, imagining the slopes and grandeur of the mountain they know.”