On Safari with Wilhelm Kuhnert in Middleburg, Virginia 

Elephants by Kuhnert (c. 1917), NMWA.

From Tanga on the Indian Ocean near the Kenya border, Kuhnert walked inland along the trails of Arab slavers, through Masailand to the foothills of Kilimanjaro.  His 25 porters carried his camp, staples, hunting guns, exchange goods, and extensive art supplies.  

His second safari, in 1905, took him from Dar es Salaam to the southern highlands, moving between today’s Ruaha National Park and the Selous Game Reserve.  Caught in the middle of the Maji Maji Rebellion, a native uprising against colonial tax and labor policies, the wild-hearted artist was confined for weeks in primitive garrison posts in Mahende and Iringa, and depicted battle scenes instead of wild beasts.  

Two Lions by Kuhnert.

Six years later, at the suggestion of a Leipzig newspaper, Kuhnert accompanied Friedrich August III, the last king of Saxony, on safari in British-Egyptian Sudan.  But the constraints and protocol annoyed him, and it was not satisfying.  

Voices of Africa, courtesy of Russell Fink.

He returned to G.E.A.  in 1912, lingering for weeks in game-rich spots with reliable water.  His journals convey his feeling, torn between hunting and painting:  “Although the hunter in me has a difficult time overcoming the desire to shoot, the artist in me is stronger, and I have come just to observe as much as possible.”   But when a rifle breaks, so does he: “I can’t hunt, and thus can’t work .  .  .  I am entirely broken.” A compromise is struck with a waterbuck:  “I shot it in a way to get the most meat, but can also use such a piece for my work, so the two are united.” 

Mixed Bag by Kuhnert.

Kuhnert’s field knowledge led to his illustrating major zoological works, hunting narratives by science-oriented sportsmen, as well as the memoirs of G.E.A.’s first governor, Count Adolf von Götzen, whose bloody handling of the Maji Maji Rebellion Kuhnert had accidentally experienced first-hand.

The Great War, and possibly age and a second marriage, ended the adventurous great artist’s travels to Africa.  

Brooke Chilvers learned that several storage areas in today’s MuseuMAfricA were flooded when thieves stole the museums’s tap fittings and basins during a November, 2020, robbery.  “Hopefully, Kuhnert’s paintings, of which I find no trace on the internet, had already disappeared.”