Located right in the heart of Nairobi City next to Nyayo House is The Nairobi Gallery. It is housed in the Old PC’s (provincial commissioner) office building. Built in 1913, it was referred to as ‘Hatches, Matches and Dispatches’ because of the births, marriages and deaths that were recorded here.
I can’t write about the gallery without first getting into the story of the man who we have to thank for its existence. Born in 1911 to a Goan trader and a Maasai woman Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was Kenya’s second Vice-President from May 1965 until December 1966.
He resigned as vice president not long after the assassination of his best friend, the independence hero Pio Gama Pinto. Having started a collection of Africana paraphernalia in the 1950s, the Murumbis turned their attention to growing their collection of artifacts, postage stamps, jewellery, textiles and rare books.
In 1972, Murumbi opened the continent’s first Pan African Gallery with his business partner, Alan Donovan, now chairman of the Murumbi Trust, and wife, Sheila Murumbi. Alan Donovan now runs the African Heritage House which is unfortunately set for demolition.
In the late 1976s Joseph Murumbi sold part of the collection to the Kenyan government at throwaway prices. If he had had his way, his collection would have been housed in his Muthaiga (a suburb in Nairobi) home which he had planned to expand to become the Murumbi Institute of African Studies with a library, hostel and kitchen.Unfortunately the government subdivided the land, allocating it to developers . It is said he died heartbroken after finding developers on this land tuning it into private real estate. He passed away on the 22nd of June 1990 without having his dreams realized. Source
Sheila Murumbi passed away in 2000 without leaving a will. Without a will, the collection was destined for England but fortunately, Alan Donovan with the help of then Vice president Moody Awori managed to halt the exportation of the precious artefacts. Eventually the collection was released through a deed of gift to the people of Kenya, represented by the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya, who have signed a deed to maintain and exhibit the collections for locals and visitors to enjoy.
These collections have now been reunited in this building, the Old Provincial Commissioner’s office. It is a fitting site since Murumbi tried to make this same building a Kenyan National Art Gallery during his time as Foreign minister.
The gallery is divided into around 6 rooms each containing a different collection. This post is a collection of photos of my favorite. There is so much more to see so I would urge you to take a trip there.
Once you get in you’re greeted by a well lit circular foyer dominated by a plinth holding a pot.
Lady Magdalene Odundo’s pot made of clay graces the “Zero Point” where all distances in Kenya is measured from it is at the centre of Nairobi. She received an OBE from the Queen of England for her work.
There was no guide to show me around (they had not arrived, African time I guess?). I did not mind as most of the exhibits had descriptions. It would be nice to have a guide though, I do plan on going back and hopefully on my next visit I will have somebody to show me around.
The first room I walked into was a mix of artifacts from different parts of Africa. The room isn’t themed; it felt like it was a collection of all the pieces that didn’t fit well into the other collections. This room leads onto another room where photography is prohibited. It is here where current exhibits are held.
Lion’s mane headdress Alawaru proclaims that a Maasai has killed a lion during warrior-hood. For centuries this was a necessary ritual but is no longer practiced
In the bottom right hand corner you can see Joseph Murumbi donning the headdress.
Dogon iron lamp from Mali
Yoruba carved wooden stool with 4 figures
Comb made of Tanzanian ebony. For decoration purposes
Painting by Robin Anderson co-founded East African gallery Watatu with was founded in Nairobi in 1968 by afro-nomads cum artists, Jony Waite, and David Hart.
The paintings are displayed on the walls of the corridors that lead to the different rooms
Bruce Onokbrakpeya. Artist from Nigeria invented his own techniques like ‘’plasto cuts’’ made from molds created from his print masters. His prints shared the billing with the first Kenyan sculptor Elkana Nyongesa for the first African heritage exhibition in 1973.
Joseph Olabode is the brother of famous Nigerian artist and Lagos gallery owner, Niki Seven Seven who was married to the late flamboyant artist twins Seven Seven. Оlabode participated in several joint Nigerian exhibitions at African Heritage and a solo show which re-opened the gallery after it was totally devastated by fire in 1976
Asiru Olatunde Osogbo (Nigerian 1918-1993) was a blacksmith like his ancestors before him . In 1961 he began to create figures of animals out of recycled copper and aluminium and this work evolved into a unique repousse technique on aluminium panels. Source
The next section I visited was a collection of artefacts from African royalty and textiles
Swahili chair from Lamu
Dahomey royal lions. The Royal Palace of Abhomey in Bahomey(now Benin) was a centre for art and handicraft. Bronze casting by the lost wax technique and decorated metal sheets used to cover wooden objects were particularly well developed and the quality of work seldom exceeded in Africa. These lions are an example of metal applique where the sheets o hammered metal are embossed with designs then inlaid on wooden objects. Lions like this stand at the entrance of the old palace of Abhomey.
On the sides of the lions are carved doors with typical designs of nobility in western Nigeria. The polychrome is unusual. These doors were on the first African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue retrieved after a fire destroyed the premises in 1976.
Egungun refers to masquerade costumes connected to ancestor worship among the Yoruba(Nigeria) to assure that the ancestors have a place among the living. Egungun multiple costumes are composed of layers of the most exquisite decorated cloth lappets created from the most prestigious and expensive textiles The dancer is sealed into the costume so as not to be identified. As the dancer whirls the lappets are sent flying while the dancer gives warnings blessings, messages and examples of immoral behaviour. He is thought to become possessed by the spirits of ancestors as manifested as a single entity.
Elaborately beaded mask from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon. The ears represent those of an elephant. It is worn by warriors who have rendered great service to the chief and also powerful members of the tribe
By far my favourite section was the jewellery one. There were so many exquisitely made pieces that are just beautiful. I liked the section so much that I visited it twice.
This brass box suspended on a handmade chain was made by a Wakamba craftsman was used to hold the identity and movement documents of all African males over the age of 15 in Kenya as from about 1920. It was said to be a means to efficiently control the pool of labour but it was constant reminder of the British yoke of colonialism and severely restricted a person’s movements. Among the necessary documents to be kept in the kipande were receipts for poll taxes that had to be paid by all Africans.
Lion with man in mouth. Dahomey (Benin) Hunter on horse, executioner, small elephant, large elephant (which has lost the man held in his trunk) Monkey eating a peanut all from Dahomey Benin
Far left Rider on a horse form Mali
Brass perfume bottle from Lamu, Kenya
Dahomey (Benin) silver bat mask pendant hanging flower pod bells used on an African Heritage necklace. T has been combined with Benin false coral beads that were created in glass for commoners. Commoners were not allowed to wear real coral beads unless awarded to them by royalty, on penalty of death
The Turkana and other Nilotic tribes in Kenya and Ethiopia make a hair ornament called Ateloi. It is woven with grass with copper, brass or iron wires and attached to the clay headdresses that are either permanent or removable. These ornaments are used for holding ostrich or other onrmanetal feathers for their headdresses
Gold version of the Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was issued in Britain on 1 May 1840, for official use from 6 May of that year and features a profile of the Queen Victoria.
By far my favourite section was the jewellery one. I like shiny things .The collection also featured some pieces worn by Sheila Murumbi (wife to Joseph Murumbi).
There are no original stamps in the stamp collection room. If you want to see Murumbi’s original stamps collection you can visit the Kenya National Archives along Moi Avenue. The next room I went to was the ‘Murumbi Home’. This room reflects the original Murumbi house at Muthaiga which they lived in from 1960 to 1977. These items were also in the Murumbi homes in Transmara and at their last home on Riara Road.
The next room I went to was another that was not really themed. It housed books, weapons and wooden artifacts.
A spaghetti press made in Lamu. The dough put inside the cylinder and the wooden lever pressed down to squeeze the spaghetti out of holes in the bottom of it.
Salih Mashamoun is not only a celebrated artist from Sudan, but also a diplomat and held three one man shows at the African Heritage including one that was on display when the gallery was completely devastated by a fire in 1976. Fortunately these two paintings on goat’s skin were at the Murumbi house in Muthaiga on the night of the fire. Displayed alongside is an embossed leather shield from Somalia made of giraffe and hippo hide a Mauritanian sword of silver and leather carried by royal guards.
A Swahili nobleman’s chair from Lamu inlaid with ebony and bone
The gallery is a mini heaven for lovers of African art and culture. It is open daily from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm including weekends and public holidays. Photography is permitted in the gallery except one room which houses current exhibits.
Citizen: (Kshs) Adults -150($1.70) Kids below 16yrs -100 ($1.12)
Residents: (Kshs) Adults- 600($6.70) Kids below 16yrs- 400 ($4.50)
Non Residents: (Kshs) Adults -1,000 ($11.20) Kids below 16yrs -500 ($5.60)
So, what do you think of the Nairobi Gallery? Have you been to a gallery or museum that displays African art and history?
This week Safari 254 links up with;
1. Reflections enroute #wkendtravelinspiration
2. Adelina’s Pack Me To in #SundayTraveler
3. #WeekendWanderlust with A southern gypsy
Please visit the sites for more wonderful photos and posts.