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The treasure Joseph Murumbi left

By Thorn Mulli | May 25th 2014

By Thorn Mulli

The grand old building that houses the Murumbi African Heritage collection has celebrated its 100th birthday, having been built in 1913 to house the then Native ministry. The settler community referred to it as ‘Hatches, Matches and Dispatches’ because of the births, marriages, and deaths recorded there.

Now it is a safe place for books, cultural attire, fabric and postage stamps from days gone by. Renowned artists, including East African pioneers Sanaa Gateja and Ancent Soi, also have their work displayed. The former established Studio Sanaa, one of the first galleries in Kenya, in Mombasa in 1971. He currently works from Kampala and uses bark cloth and other local materials in his art.

Soi, on the other hand, was selected out of all the entries from Africa to create the poster for the Munich Olympics in 1972, bringing him world fame. He has more than 20 works on display at the Nairobi Gallery, the modern name for the historic building.

Of significance also is a clay vessel by Lady Magdalene Odundo, placed at the centre of rotunda, which is said to be the centre of Nairobi. Odundo is the only Kenyan to have received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) from the Queen of England for her work.

Business partner

Murumbi opened the continent’s first Pan African Gallery in 1972, with his business partner, Alan Donovan, now chairman of the Murumbi Trust, and wife, Sheila Murumbi.

“It was Joe Murumbi’s dream to have a centre where artists from all over the continent could show their works and see and meet other artists,” Alan says.

Murumbi, Kenya’s first Foreign minister and the second vice president, resigned from the Government in 1966 and found another path through which he could serve his country and the world by collecting, preserving, protecting and promoting African art and culture in all its forms.

The collections left behind by the passing of Sheila Murumbi in 2000, endured more than a decade in a purgatory of legal wrangles. They were finally 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.

Torn down

Murumbi sold a considerable part of his collections that included books and art to the Kenya National Archives in 1976, after a fire devastated the first African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue. The following year, he offered his house in Muthaiga to house the collection, on condition that it be turned into the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.

However, this was never to be and the house was abandoned until it was finally torn down and the land reallocated. Meanwhile, Murumbi had moved near the Masai Mara Game Reserve, to a place called Intona, which means ‘roots’ in the Maa language. He built another stunning house there, but it is now abandoned and vandalised, its doors and windows missing.

After a serious fall in his bathroom, he was moved from that house, and he lived in a house off Ngong Road in Nairobi until his death in June 1990.

The Government granted permission to bury the former VP at the Nairobi City Park. This was because he had requested to be buried as near as possible to his close friend and mentor, Pio Gama Pinto, a victim of the country’s first political assassination, who is buried in the nearby cemetery.

When Sheila died in 2000, she was buried next to her husband. There were repeated attempts to vandalise the graves, so they were covered with huge boulders. When the Murumbi Trust was finally set up in 2003, it got permission to put up a fence and do some landscaping around the Murumbi graves.

In his last wishes, and as befits such a great lover of art, Murumbi asked that sculptor Elkana Ongesa, who staged the first exhibition at African Heritage in 1973, sculpt a statue near his gravesite.  Elkana created a monumental statue from Lukenya granite called ‘The bird of peace emerging from the stone of despair’”.

The Murumbi Trust installed several other sculptures by pioneer artists close to this one, including the massive iron statue by Francis Nnaggenda, which had stood in front of the Murumbis’ Muthaiga house for two decades, and two soapstone sculptures by John Odochameny and Expedito Mwebe.

Sheila Murumbi died without leaving a will.  After it was found that her British heirs, whom she had never met, were planning to export items that were of national importance, and clearly against hers and Joe’s wishes with the help of the then Vice President Moody Awori, the containers were prevented from leaving the airport. Nearly a decade later, they were at last released to the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya through the deed of gift.

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 open to the public, who can also enjoy bitings and freshly brewed coffee at the Coffee Arabica shop in the same compound.

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