Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sketching Living Walls in Tanzania by Alison Nicholls

Sketching Living Walls in Tanzania by Alison Nicholls
When I sketch in Africa, I feel I’m as close to the people and wildlife as I possibly can be. Every sketch comes alive when I look back at it, not only because it is a piece of art in its own right, but because it is also a personal memory. You may not see the chickens scrabbling around behind me or hear the muffled sound of a distant cowbell, but I remember all of this when I look at a sketch. Knowing how many sketchbooks to bring on a trip is always difficult. Some days I may only manage 1 sketch (then I wonder why I brought so many) and other days I create 6 sketches in an hour (then I wonder why I didn’t bring more).
These sketches are invaluable to me when I get back to the studio. I rarely recreate a watercolor field sketch as an acrylic on canvas back in the studio, but the gestures I capture in my sketchbook will often spark an idea for a full studio painting. Sometimes it is a question, a comment or a conservation issue that prompts my next painting idea. The African People & Wildlife Fund’s popular and highly successful Living Wall program cried out to be painted. But how exactly? I struggled with the composition for this piece and painted it 4 times before I was happy with the results!

The full explanation of the painting is shown below but to see it firsthand and to hear about more of my conservation-themed paintings, please join me at The Explorers Club in New York City on September 29 for my lecture
African Conservation through the Eyesof an Artist. Alternatively you can Live Stream the Lecture, starting at 7pm EST.

Living Walls
Acrylic 29x29” by Alison Nicholls, US$4800

Human-wildlife conflict is increasing across the globe as the human population expands and people compete with wildlife for land, food and water. People usually prevail and wildlife is squeezed into ever smaller ‘islands’ of protected land, but there are places where these trends are being reversed, where people and wildlife share natural resources for their mutual benefit. On the Maasai Steppe in northern Tanzania, the African People & Wildlife Fund consulted with local communities and created Living Wall bomas, fortified corrals, in which families keep their livestock overnight.

Traditional bomas are built of piles of thorny acacia brush which must be replenished every few months, often leading to deforestation in the area. Even then, predators can get into a poorly constructed boma, or their presence can panic livestock who break out into the bush, where they are more vulnerable to attack. In the past, people might retaliate against predators by tracking and spearing the animal responsible for killing livestock, but today livestock carcasses can be laced with lethal agricultural poisons which kill any animal, bird or insect that feeds from the carcass. For this reason, predator numbers have been plummeting (along with those of vital scavengers like vultures). If livestock can be kept safe in bomas at night, when most attacks occur, then people will have no reason to retaliate against predators and their numbers can recover. 

A Living Wall boma differs from a traditional boma in several ways. It is made of chain-link fencing held up by living fence-posts cut from native Commiphora trees. The trees are not killed by the cutting of thick branches for fence-posts, and the chain-link wire ensures that the livestock cannot break out of the boma. My Living Walls painting shows a cow, a goat, a sheep, a donkey, a spotted hyena, a leopard and a lion, linked by the crossed lines of the chain-link wire. Some of the lines are shaped into the distinctive branches of the Commiphora, with their trifoliate leaves (leaves with 3 leaflets). Vegetation of all types grows up and around a Living Wall, creating an impenetrable barrier so that the Living Wall cannot be breached and livestock and predators cannot see each other, which is why the eyes of each animal in the painting are covered with Commiphora leaves. The fact that the painting shows livestock and predators as being physically close and linked together by the Living Wall, mirrors the situation on the Maasai Steppe, where they share the same land and the future of both are interlinked.

400 Living Walls are now in operation on the Maasai Steppe, protecting 75,000 head of livestock nightly. The walls are in great demand and no livestock protected by a living wall have been killed since the program started in 2008. Living Walls are installed in areas where livestock depredation is high, so the installation of just a few Living Walls can lead to a drastic reduction in attacks on livestock. Local monitoring shows predator attacks have dropped precipitously, as have retaliatory killings of predators by livestock owners. Living Walls are changing attitudes to predators and they allow the Maasai to continue to live with lions, an animal of vital cultural importance.
The original acrylic painting of Living Walls is available for sale, priced at US$4800. If it is sold privately I will donate 40% of the sale price to APW. If it sells during an exhibition where the venue collects a commission (usually between 10-40%), APW will still receive a minimum of 10%. Limited edition giclées are also available with a 20% donation to APW from the sale of each piece.

To see more of Alison’s work please visit her website:

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