“The shopkeeper who was selling the Congolese ivory carving that Murumbi wanted to buy was so impressed that an African was collecting another African’s work of art — something he had never seen before — that he gave it to Mr Murumbi for free.”
When the Nairobi Gallery reopens next month during the Heroes’ Day weekend, Felix Kipkoech Tiony will be prepared to give guided tours of the space, including all seven-galleries.
In fact, Felix who is a member of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association, has already begun giving daily tours to both tourists and Kenyans who’ve chosen not to wait for the official opening to come and see the space that once belonged to the colonial government and today is under the auspices of the National Museums of Kenya.
The seven-sided gallery features a huge range of Pan-African artifacts and fine art from the Joseph and Sheila Murumbi’s various collections.
He has virtually all of their collected works in the gallery, including everything from Sheila’s Pan-African stamp and jewellery collections to Joe’s books and visual arts.
Among his collected art works by East African sculptors and painters, most of whom are now considered ‘pioneers’ of contemporary African art, including Louis Mwaniki, Elkana Ong’esa, Frances Nnaggenda, Jak Katarikawe, Magdelene Odundo, Expedito Mwebe and Ancent Soi whose current works fill the one gallery reserved for revolving exhibitions of other pioneers’ works of art.
The Murumbis’ collections are primarily Pan-African, although there are a number of European features as well, primarily furniture and several paintings that Kenya’s former vice president accumulated while living abroad, first while in exile before 1963 when he was the Secretary General of the Kenya African Union (KAU) and advocating for Kenya’s Independence; and then while serving as the country’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In fact, according to Felix, Mr Murumbi began collecting Pan-African art while in the UK prior to Independence. “The shopkeeper who was selling the Congolese ivory carving that Murumbi wanted to buy was so impressed that an African was collecting another African’s work of art — something he had never seen before — that he gave it to Mr Murumbi for free,” Felix recalled.
“One reason the (Nairobi) Gallery has taken so long to open is because we wanted to include Sheila Murumbi’s collections, which were nearly taken out of the country by her UK blood relations,” said one of the trustees of the Murumbi Trust, Alan Donovan.
“These were relations who Sheila hardly knew but who were contacted by the court since Sheila left no will, so the court called her next of kin,” said Joe Murumbi’s co-director of the African Heritage Pan African Gallery.
Launching the non-profit Murumbi Trust in order to retrieve Sheila’s collections and ensure they remain in Kenya, Donovan has also included a number of artifacts from his own private collection in the Gallery’s permanent collection.
But to ensure that the public get a proper appreciation of the magnitude of the Murumbis’ contribution to Kenya’s contemporary art and culture, Donovan also gave an extensive African Heritage tour guide course, which included detailed accounts of the art, culture and history of the Murumbi collections, but went even further to embrace aspects of Pan-African art that featured at the AH Gallery (1972-2002) and can still be seen at Donovan’s own African Heritage House, which is off the Mombasa Road at Mlolongo.
Felix was one of Donovan’s star students. “We only met at the [Nairobi] Gallery when the course was half over and Felix was working with the Nai Ni Who project,” said Donovan whose students also included undergraduates from Strathmore and Nairobi universities. “Felix was keen to join our class, so we let him in. He was a quick learner and turned out to become one of our finest tour guides,” he added.
At the time of their meeting, Felix was also conducting the CBD Walking Tours which just started up in June.
(Article Originally Published in the Business Daily on Thursday, September 12th 2013)