Above: Sculpture by Francis Nnaggenda at Nairobi Gallery – Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: 27 October 2018

After an exhausting and stress-filled morning spent in the government office to renew a passport, l needed an energizing boost. The answer lay in the neighbouring Nairobi Gallery, built in 1913 as the PC’s office and dubbed ‘matches, hatches and dispatches’ where all marriages, births and deaths were recorded.

Point Zero Cafe (800x533)
Point Zero Cafe at Nairobi Gallery – Copyright Rupi Mangat

And it proved great after a refreshing ice-old caramel macchiato at Point Zero café on the grounds of the iconic building that is famed as Nairobi’s first stone building in the city centre with Kipande House across the road (Kenyatta Avenue) built around the same time taking pride of place as Kenya’s tallest building for the next two decades. The blue-stone building now houses Kenya Commercial Bank having morphed from a warehouse for the Uganda Railway to becoming the infamous Kipande House where Africans were issued with identity cards during colonial times.

Stone soap sculture by Elkana Ongesa at Nairobi Gallery - copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Stone soap sculture by Elkana Ongesa at Nairobi Gallery – copyright Rupi Mangat

So here l was enveloped in an awesome world of Africa’s beauty from centuries past – all that was in the private collection of Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice-president between May and September 1966. After retiring from active politics, he sought out the beauty of the continent in her arts and people. He and his wife Sheila became the greatest art collectors of all-things African.

Murumbi's memrobilia at Nairobi Gallery - copyright Rupi Mangat
Murumbi’s memrobilia at Nairobi Gallery – copyright Rupi Mangat

The Murumbi Collection on display at the Nairobi Gallery, National Archives and the Nairobi Museum is largely thanks to the persistency of Alan Donovan of the African Heritage fame who in 1972 struck a long-time friendship with the illustrious couple that led to the founding of the African Heritage. It became the largest pan-African gallery and world famous, launching careers of fashion icons like Iman.

Strolling through the galleries that are a timeless treasure trove l’m looking at part of the Joseph and Sheila Murumbi Pan African Stamp collection – an astounding half a million stamps and reputed to be the biggest and the most comprehensive collection of Pan African stamps. The history of Africa can be pieced together from these postage stamps – and reflect the scramble for Africa.

Along the corridor, l’m enchanted with the bas-relief in silver from West Africa that depicts rich legends of the Yoruba. Heading straight for the epi-centre of the city dubbed Point Zero from where all measurements to other cities on earth and all points in Kenya were made, it’s in the hexagonal-shaped chamber of the gallery with natural light streaming through stands a ceramic pot by Lady Magdalene Odundo, who took her people’s craft (of the lakeshore Luo) of pot-making to an international stratosphere.

point zero Magdalene Odundo ceramic vase nairobi gallery copyright Alan Donovan (600x800)
Rotunda of the Nairobi Gallery (Old PCS Office) with a “vessel” by Magadalene Odundo in the place of honour, Point Zero, from whence measurements to all other destinations in Kenya and the rest of the world are made from Nairobi. Magdalene Odundo received the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her work in ceramics from the Queen of England, and was recently installed as the Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in UK, the highest position held by a Kenyan in the art world. Courtesy Alan Donovan

From this central point, the galleries fan out. And it’s also in this central sphere that some of Africa’s best collection of sculptures by legendary icons in the art world are, like that of Francis Nnaggenda. Murumbi bought five of his monumental works and asked the then mayor in the 1970s to buy Nnaggenda’s huge works to display in public places in Nairobi – but to no avail.  One of Nnaggenda’s famous sculptures is the ‘Mother and Child’ which stands in front of the National Museums of Kenya. It was commissioned by Joseph Murumbi.

Mother and Child by Francis Nnaggenda at Nairobi Museum copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Mother and Child by Francis Nnaggenda at Nairobi Museum copyright Rupi Mangat

I’m mesmerized by the rich jewels of the continent that adorned the people that leads to another gallery featuring ‘Women Pioneers in the Arts’. It’s a current exhibition of the visual arts and it’s a burst of colour, vibrant and exciting.

Rosemary Karuga’s stunning works of collage reverberate of an Africa that in a century will be so different. It’s the everyday people and lifestyle. This pioneering woman artist now 92, was the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s fine art department from 1950 to 1952. She developed her signature style of collage and something l now discover, even taught the other female maestro, Professor Emerita Magdalene Odundo (OBE) who is now Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK.

Then there’s Theresa Musoke, the Ugandan artist who lived and exhibited in Kenya for 20 years when her country was in turmoil. Her African landscapes are subdued yet powerful in a technique that’s uniquely Musoke – her textile painting and tie and dye. Her work is global with the most famous ‘Birth Mural’ at Makerere University.

I could keep writing but you have to see it. Each of the nine pioneering women artists of East Africa went against all ends to put women’s art on the global platform like Margaret Trowell, Yoni Wai-te, Robin Anderson (late) with her elegant silk batiks, Nani Croze’s glass work and murals, Geraldine Robarts vibrant paintings and Joy Adamson’s sole repertoire of the peoples of Kenya in the 1950s when cameras were not as common as today.

It will do your soul a lot of good looking at all that celebrates the beauty of Africa.

Log on to African Heritage for more.