The heart of Africa

Keith Joubert’s paintings take wildlife art to a new level

“Masai Camel Herd” by Keith Joubert.

“Masai Camel Herd” by Keith Joubert.

In the world of wildlife art, South African Keith Joubert is somewhat of an anomaly. Rather than paint Africa’s landscape and animals realistically—or in an idealized, trophy-like form—Joubert combines abstract elements with representational ones to create paintings that brim with beauty and meaning.

Joubert is also an anomaly among men in general, as he chooses to live most of the year in the African bush, rather than in his hometown of Johannesburg, or any place with running water and electricity, for that matter. Joubert is described by those who know him as somewhat of a nomad, a man who resists collecting worldly goods so as not to be encumbered by them. It’s fitting, then, that a collection of Joubert’s new oil-on-canvas works, titled Nomads of the Rift Valley, is now on display at Stremmel Gallery.

If you had to choose just one painting as a representative of Joubert’s style, you might pick “Kingdom.” A rhinoceros dominates the top left area of the painting, while a tribal hunter carrying his spear and shield emerges from the lower right. While the hunter’s face is detailed, the rest of his body fades out at the edges, blending in with the surrounding landscape. And in this landscape Joubert has painted symbols—spidery-thin outlines of birds or cattle or fossilized remains—that suggest a complex ecosystem that governs the fate of the man and the beast. Bright red handprints emphasize man’s “stamp” on this environment.

As Mark Read, director of the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, writes in the exhibit’s accompanying literature, “Man is moving increasingly onto center stage on Joubert’s paintings at present.” For Nomads of the Rift Valley, many of the human figures appear to be of the Masai tribe, a semi-nomadic people whose bright red garb, fierce reputation as warriors and sole dependence on cattle are perhaps their most defining characteristics.

“Masai Elder” is another of Joubert’s complex artworks that combine symbolism with realism. The elder’s head and facial features are clear, but the form of the body is merely suggested. The entire left side of the man’s body is made up of what appears to be an African lake at sunset, his left arm represented by a giraffe’s neck peeking out of that lake. Where his shield would be, Joubert substitutes the large, detailed head of an elephant. Symbols appear etched like petroglyphs behind the elder’s head, and the bright red stamp comes this time as a lizard on the elder’s arm.

In this piece, the Masai elder is not only a part of nature; nature is literally and figuratively part of him. After 30-something years in the African bush, one has to wonder whether Joubert feels the same.