The idea for Mamba (Swahili for crocodile) was developed after a long process of observing wild animals in East Africa together with the study of ancient Egyptian artistic conventions. My knowledge of these ancient master’s work married to my modern European artistic education, forms the basis of my compositional techniques. Therefore, to put Mamba in its context I must first say something about Egyptian art.
The most striking thing about Egyptian art is its extraordinary visual rhythm. Representation was not based on any scientific laws, such as perspective, but on simple ease of recognition. Unlike western art, the empty canvas (or wall), was not a space in which to create illusions, but rather a surface on which to present magical diagrams, the aim being to convey accurately the information needed for a successful transition into the next life. Thus, objects are depicted by their most characteristic aspects. Crocodiles, for instance, are always drawn in profile, while lizards are shown from above. This is due to the obvious difference in the animal’s size and the angle from which they would be normally viewed.
A few years after my first journey up the Nile I went on safari in Kenya. This spectacular land is inhabited by an infinite variety of animals all going about the serious business of living and dying and filled me with wide-eyed wonder. There was Mount Kilimanjaro, with its snow-capped summit reaching above the clouds, the Great Rift Valley so vast, they tell me, it can be seen from outer space. Lake Naivasha, teeming with millions of flamingos. And of course the Serengeti, where grazing beasts and predators alike, flourish in bewildering multitudes. The never-ending drama of life and death was so concentrated, that, by comparison, England seemed like an unreal toy town. It occurred to me, in this place that the world on every level is equally brutal and beautiful.
Mamba is one of my first attempts to realise a picture that combines the elements of brutality and beauty. I began by making observational sketches and photographs. Then, in a series of drawings and paintings, I explored, refined and removing the unnecessary. Crocodiles are an obvious candidate for the brutal element, but, as I studied them, they seemed to me to be beautiful and happy creatures. The bird is a jucana which lives in the marshes at Amboseli. They are attractive, cheeky little birds that spend their lives walking across the lilies fishing for food. Mamba shows the moment before two meals converge! The bird in its hungry obsession is completely oblivious of its dangerous course and the whole composition is also an analogy about human behaviour.