6 February 2007

Kenya: Gallery Befitting Murumbi


Nairobi — KENYA'S JOSEPH MURUMBI, was probably Africa's most famous artefact collector.

Throughout his life, he searched for the memory of Africa - its history, beauty and legacy to the world. It is rare in Africa for leaders to forsake political power. Yet the late Murumbi gave up the near certainty of achieving the pinnacle of power when he resigned his post as Kenya's second vice president in order to satisfy his quest to accumulate a different kind of wealth.

That wealth is now on display at the Murumbi Gallery, which occupies the entire ground floor of the Kenya National Archives building, on Nairobi's Moi Avenue. It now houses part of Murumbi's life long collection of books, artifacts, art, jewellery and crafts.

Murumbi spent his life searching for Africa. Perhaps this was because of his need to prove his own identity, as, unlike other half-caste Africans, he chose to be an African.

The son of a Goan trader and a Maasai mother, Murumbi was forced to chose between the two peoples upon his return to Kenya from schooling in India where he had spent most of his life. Murumbi chose his mother's people even though this meant he would have to give up the benefits then enjoyed by the Asian community in colonial Kenya.

He then took it upon himself to become the memory of Africa. During his time in exile in the UK, brought on by his pro-independence political activities in Kenya with the first African political party, the Kenya African Union (KAU), he was well known by pro-independence British parliamentarians for his daily visits to their offices to collect documents concerning Africa, particularly Kenya. The original KAU flag from his collection now hangs in the foyer of the Kenya National Archives.

Although his collection was lost several times along the way, they finally grew to an astounding 6,000 volumes of books and documents, many published before 1900, a postage stamp collection that could rival that of the Queen of England, and art, jewellery, textiles and crafts from all parts of the African continent.

It was after his resignation as vice president that Murumbi went into business, most notably co-founding the African Heritage, the continent's first Pan African gallery, with his wife Sheila, and Alan Donovan, an American designer.

The gallery grew to what the World Bank described as the "largest, most organised craft wholesale and retail operation in Africa .... it is a pioneer, having raised African handicrafts from the level of souvenir trinkets to objet d'art with world class appeal."

The first African Heritage on Nairobi's Kenyatta Avenue burned down in 1976, and everything was lost, including the tailoring studios, jewellery and craft ateliers and the company's stores of original designs. Murumbi vowed to rebuild the company's flagship premises (eventually expanded to more than 50 outlets around the world). It was that same year that he sold the bulk of his personal collection to the Kenya National Archives, including his precious house in Muthaiga which was to house the collection and host scholars from all parts of the world as the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.

This was never to be, however, as the house was later sold to private parties by the Kenyan government. The collection was never properly labeled and displayed until some 30 years later.

Many art enthusiasts have waited a long time to see the original Murumbi collection. However, there are still containers of important books, manuscripts, art and his personal memorabilia and papers (including his incomplete autobiography) housed in a shipping and forwarding warehouse near the JKIA airport. There is no climate or environmental control over these fragile objects which are under severe threat of irreparable damage from heat and pests.

THE COLLECTION AT THE shipping company was left behind by Mrs Murumbi when she died in 2000. As there was no will found at the time of her death, the collection remains in legal limbo, even though Murumbi was the main force in Kenya for preserving important cultural items for the people of Kenya, having served as the chairman of the Kenya National Archives.

The opening of the Murumbi Gallery was a celebration befitting the lives of Joseph and Sheila Murumbi, who now lie in unmarked graves in Nairobi City Park. The graves have been desecrated numerous times as they are entirely in the open. This was because it was his wish to be buried as near as possible to his mentor Pio de Gama Pinto, who was assassinated in 1965. However, as the cemetery was full, the Murumbis were buried outside the cemetery in Nairob'si City Park.

As a mark of the great respect for the Murumbis, several artistic legends of East Africa attended the opening ceremony and contributed works for permanent exhibition at the gallery. These included Robin Anderson, one of East Africa's most prolific artists, famed for her batiks on pure silk (one of which she donated to the Murumbi Trust for permanent exhibition at the Kenya National Archives).

Sharing the podium that night with Anderson was Yoni Waite, an American artist who migrated to Kenya just after the country's independence and who gave up her American nationality to become a Kenyan. Her trade mark animal paintings adorn many hotels and restaurants in East Africa, among them the Serena lodges.

Anderson and Waite were co-founders - with David Hart - of one of East Africa's most famous galleries, Gallery Watatu in Nairobi.

Expodito Mwembe, another artistic legend in East Africa, whose sensuous carved wooden panels enhance the Bambara Lounges at both the Nairobi Serena Hotel and the new Kampala Serena Hotel, has prepared a special carved panel for the Murumbi Gallery. However, as the panel was too large to fit on the bus, he was not able to attend the opening, and the Gallery awaits its arrival.

Also on hand during the event was Elkana Ogesa, who is undoubtedly Kenya's most famous stone sculptor. His gigantic stone works enlighten both the United Nations headquarters in Paris and in New York. The model for his statue in Paris is among Murumbi's collection at the Kenya National Archives. Another sits in a main square in Bejing.

Thus it is a fitting gesture that Ongesa has offered to provide a carved work of art especially for the new Murumbi Memorial Park, now under construction at the Murumbi grave site at the Nairobi City Park.

The Murumbi grave site was recently under threat when developers were given permission by the Nairobi City Council to commence a housing project on the very plot where the couple is are buried. After a public outcry, the city fathers relented and have vowed to secure the remnants of the Nairobi City Park as a national monument.

The Kenya National Archives has agreed to move one of the massive metal sculptures by the doyen of East African sculptors, Francis Nnagenda (a former chairperson of the Makerere Department of Fine Arts) to the Murumbi Memorial Park.

The statue once stood in front of Murumbi's house in Muthaiga. When Murumbi opened the original African Heritage on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi, oficiated by the then mayor Margaret Kenyatta - the daughter of the first president of Kenya - he challenged the mayor and the city council to purchase large works by sculptors like Nnagenda, for display in public places.

HE SAID AFRICANS SHO-uld not bemoan the fact that their art is leaving the continent if they do not buy it.

A special exhibition of sculpture and wall hangings was also featured at the opening of the Murumbi Gallery. Sanaa Gateja, now living in Uganda, brought several magnificent tapestries on barkcloth, a material that has recently been denoted as the national treasure of Uganda. These huge panels make good use of barkcloth as the basic material, which his been dyed, painted and stitched with raffia threads.

Sanaa has founded several galleries in East Africa, including his first gallery in Mombasa and others in Uganda.

Also featured is a unique collection of sculpture on exhibition based on the "Lost Art" of Africa, from cultures that are vanishing or have disappeared over the past five thousand years. However all of these sculptures were modern interpret.

The centerpiece of the evening, however, was from Kenya's most famous artist, although not well known in Kenya, as she lives in the United Kingdom. Magdelene Odundo donated one of her phenomenal clay "vessels" to the Murumbi Trust for exhibition at the Murumbi Gallery. The vessel now occupies a place of honour at the entry of the gallery, exactly the same position that one of her pots occupies at the entry of the venerable British Museum. Odundo's pots, although based on African tradition, have achieved an ethereal position in the contemporary art world.

One could could almost conclude that the opening of the gallery was exactly how the Murumbis would have planned it.

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