From the neolithic petroglyphs of southern Africa and Australia to the nineteenth century animalier painters and sculptors like Rosa Bonheur, Edwin Landseer and Antoine-Louis Barye, the depiction of wildlife is the oldest visual tradition in the world. Historically, it has ranged from shamanistic imagery to aid in spiritual journeys to zoological documentation to emotionally charged scenes designed to evoke patriotism, sentimentality or religious symbolism. In the twentieth century, wildlife imagery was part of such diverse artistic movements as Surrealism and Pop Art, as well as the continuing classical realist practice in western art. Guy Combes’ work incorporates many of these aspects of wildlife imagery, but focuses on creating global awareness of the fragility and beauty of the ecosystems of east central Africa.
Combes comes by his understanding of African environmental concerns naturally. He was born in Kenya in 1971, and spent his first eight years exploring that natural world on safari with his father, Simon, who was an internationally respected wildlife artist. In 1979, however, his parents decided that the family should return to England where Guy and his sister, Cindy, would receive a good education. Guy’s experience at boarding school was understandably difficult; his life in Kenya was far removed from the conventional English boyhood, and although his classmates were amazed at his stories of safaris, they also ostracized him for being an outsider.
During his school years, Combes most often drew images of people, and at age eleven, he was awarded a prize from the National Portraiture Foundation affiliated with Britain’s National Portrait Gallery in London. Two years later, in 1984, he received an art scholarship to Malvern Boys College in Worcestershire, and subsequently went on to receive an Art Foundation Diploma from Cheltenham Art College at the University of Gloucester in 1989, and an Interior Design Diploma from Inchbald School of Design in London in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, he worked in catering while taking additional classes at Brighton University.
Like many artists embarking on their careers, Combes struggled to find his own voice. His art education, as was typical of the time, emphasized abstract and conceptual art, but simultaneously, he was very conscious of his father’s worldwide prestige as a wildlife painter working within a realist tradition. When his parents divorced in the late 1990s, Combes’ father moved back to Kenya to pursue his work there. In 2001, Combes too returned to his birthplace, where he worked as a safari camp manager while continuing to paint. Gradually, he developed a deeper understanding of the land and the environment around him; and he renewed his relationship with his father at his home, Soysambu Ranch, in the Great Rift Valley.
This part of Kenya is located northeast of the Serengeti and Maasai-Mara parks, in a region where potential development endangers both the natural habitat and the archaeological record of humanity’s earliest existence. In 2003, Guy’s father Simon, together with his second wife Kathryn, relocated to Soysambu as the project coordinator for the Rhino Rescue Trust, a move that allowed him to contribute to saving wildlife, and also provided a rich environment for his painting. When his son visited him there, it became an opportunity to build their relationship as well. Sadly, this came to an abrupt end on December 12, 2004 when Simon Combes died in a tragic hiking accident.
The emotional impact of his father’s unexpected death was overwhelming. Combes began painting “portraits” of individual African animals, in part as a method of grieving and in part to understand his father’s artistic legacy. In 2006, he found himself in the United States for a retrospective of his father’s work at the Hiram Baluvelt Art Museum in Oradell, New Jersey, where director Marijane Singer offered him a position as Artist-in-Residence. For Combes, that opportunity, and the move to the United States, represented another turning point. His residency ultimately lasted for five years, and it allowed him to establish himself as a wildlife artist, and provided an environment in which he could define himself independently. He exhibited his work at professional associations’ gatherings such as the Safari Club International and eventually at museums such as the San Diego Museum of Natural History.
In addition, Combes’ ties to Kenya remain strong. In 2008, he was appointed Director of US Development for Soysambu Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the ecosystem of the Great Rift Valley. Much of his work for the Conservancy involves raising awareness of the environmental issues in this region, through his art and his ability to bring public attention to the issues. This means spending several months per year in Kenya, where he now leads safaris for artists.
Today, Combes is based in the East Bay area of northern California, although he also spends considerable time in the West Country of England with his mother. His painting continues to evolve, focusing on realistic depictions of African wildlife, but also beginning to explore other aspects of the African landscape and history.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.