Built in 1913, Nairobi Gallery was formerly a civil service building fondly referred to as “Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches” because of the births, marriages, and deaths that were recorded there. Today, the building serves as a museum and national monument. It is also the location of Point Zero, from which all distances were measured in Kenya.
The Nairobi Gallery sits in the centre of Kenya’s sprawling capital city. In fact, the exact centre! In the middle of the museum is an atrium with a tiled floor designed to look like 16 points on a compass, and in the middle of the atrium is Point Zero, the spot from which the distances from other places in the country were measured. Royal cartographers chose this spot based on astronomical calculations. Today, Point Zero is used to teach school children about measurement and map work.
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, this building became the first Nairobi Provincial Commissioner’s office. Realizing the building’s importance, officials declared it a national monument in 1995. The National Museums of Kenya renovated the building, and the Nairobi Gallery opened here in 2005.
This sculpture was carved from Kisii soapstone by Kenyan master sculptor Elkana Ong’esa in 1974. It was inspired by a dream he had about the release of South Africa from the shackles of apartheid. Works by Ong’esa can be found in museums around the world.
A large, black vessel sits atop a plinth, which, in turn, stands on Point Zero. The artist is Magdalene Odundo, one of the most celebrated ceramists in the world. Kenyan born, Odundo has received many awards for her pottery, including appointment to the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Francis Nnaggenda is one of Africa’s leading artists. Former Kenyan Vice-President Joseph Murumbi supported Nnaggenda early in his career and commissioned 5 of his most monumental works. This sculpture in entitled “Mother Goddess Africa.”
The Yoruba people of western Africa are famous for their arched wooden doors, which adorn their palaces and compounds. Even their granaries are adorned with arched wooden panels that may be joined to form a door.
Inside the Joseph and Sheila Murumbi’s Room, items collected and used by the Murumbi’s are on display, including a Lamu sofa with velvet cushions, a cupboard from Zanzibar, photos of Murumbi during his leadership era, commemoration from different countries, and posters concerning aspects of African heritage. Joseph Murumbi was appointed as the second vice president of Kenya in 1966 a position he held for only 6 months. He and his wife collected African artefacts and the works of African artists.
Joseph Murumbi (1911 to 1990) played a pivotal role in forming the constitution and government agencies of a newly independent Kenya in 1964–1966. He also was a supporter and collector of East African artists and opened Africa’s first Pan African Gallery with his wife and a friend Alan Donovan.
Sheila Murumbi was a librarian and stamp collector when she met her future husband Joseph Murumbi. Together with their friend Alan Donovan, they supported and showcased African Art. By the time of her death in 2000, her stamp collection was said to rival that of the Queen of England.
Joseph Zuzarte MurumbiNational Museums of Kenya
Examples of African jewellery date back thousands of years. Throughout history, the people of Africa have used jewellery as decorative adornment, markers of status, currency, and for ceremonial purposes. Designs, materials, and production methods have varied greatly over time and from region to region. In many parts of the continent, jewellery making using traditional materials and methods is still carried on today.
Alan Donovan worked with the Turkana community who used the readily available cooking pots to produce jewellery and accessories based on African traditions. This is a picture of (Aparaparat), designed and inspired by the Turkana people, who live in an arid, sandy region of north western Kenya.
Turkana collection by Alan Donovan for Banana Republic USANational Museums of Kenya
The Akamba people of Kenya were the guides, hunters and distance traders of East Africa. They are noted for their elaborate beadwork. White, traditionally the colour of fertility, is the background for most Akamba beadwork. Common patterns are a variation of triangles, diamonds, and arrows.
Akamba beadwork collectionNational Museums of Kenya
Gold was used as currency in Africa, mainly in the western Gold Coast in what is now Ghana. In the Ashanti Empire, which emerged in that region in the 17th century, gold was both a trading commodity and a currency.
The art of making, designing, and embroidering African textiles is as old as time, and, in fact, African textiles can serve as historical documents. Cloth can be used to commemorate a person, event, and even a political cause. Textile has also been used to convey important cultural information, and has often played a central role in festivities and ceremonies. Both men and women weave cloth. Materials vary from place to place and include palm, bamboo, raw silk, pineapple fiber and even metals.
The Royal Palace of Abhomey in Dahomey (now Benin) was a centre for art and handicraft. Bronze casting and decorated metal sheets used to cover wooden objects were particularly well developed. Lions like this pair of metal appliqué would typically stand at the entrance of the old palace of Abhomey.
Egungun refers to masquerade costumes connected to ancestor worship among the Yoruba of Nigeria to assure that the ancestors have a place among the living. The costumes are composed of layers of the most exquisite decorated cloth lappets created from the most prestigious and expensive textiles.
This elaborately beaded mask is from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon. The ears represent those of an elephant. Warriors who have rendered great service to the chief and powerful members of the tribe wear this mask and vestment.
African women usually weave on wide stationary looms as opposed to the narrow portable handlooms used by men. Cloths are used for both everyday wear and important ceremonies. Kente (not shown here) is a famous Ghanaian cloth that many black Americans have adopted as the signature cloth of Africa.
African Heritage modelsNational Museums of Kenya
Yolanda MasindeNational Museums of Kenya
This mantle was woven from raw silk by a Merina weaver on the island of Madagascar. This type of fabric was traditionally reserved for the famadihana ceremony, when the bones of ancestors are freshly wrapped in magnificent shrouds, some signed in beads by the weavers.
The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) holds objects telling the stories of Kenyan communities. This gallery showcases the art and artifacts of the skilled and diverse craftspeople of the region. Everyday objects, such as spoons, resting stools, and garments used for important rituals and ceremonies are on display. Weapons that might have been used in war, as status symbols and in traditional ceremonies are also showcased.
An elaborate piece of art worn on the head, most headdresses have a cultural meaning. Some are worn for social events or to shield the wearer from the elements. This Turkana headdress made of ancestral hair and decorated with ostrich feathers ensures the bond with the ancestors is still strong.
Maasai Warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
Both men and women used stools to carry out everyday activities. In some cultures, anyone can use a low stool with two legs but only men can use a high stool.
StoolNational Museums of Kenya
Containers are made to cook, carry, and store things. The shape is determined by what they store and the materials used to make them. Some are decorated through carving, incising or bead work. Calabashes made from gourds like this one (Kamba) was used to carry local brew during wedding ceremonies.
CalabashesNational Museums of Kenya
ShieldNational Museums of Kenya
On display are weapons from the peoples of East Africa, including the Maasai and Turkana. Most notable were the spears made using a long wooden sheath and a hammered metal, head as well as the bow and arrows and shields made from buffalo and giraffe hide. Some communities crafted swords, as well.
Works of prominent artists from Africa hang in the Nairobi Gallery’s corridors. Styles and techniques vary greatly. Some works depict traditional African folktales, while others make statements about the politics and events of recent years. Joseph and Sheila Murumbi and Alan Donovan had personal connections to many of the pioneer artists represented at the Nairobi Gallery, having supported and shown their works since they opened their first gallery, the African Heritage, in 1973.
Nigerian artist Joseph Olabode creates intricate bead mosaics.
Originally from South Africa, Charles Sekano spent 30 years in exile in Nairobi. Sekano, also a poet and musician, is one of Africa’s most successful artists in the global market.
Point Zero Café
Gallery goers can take a break for Kenyan coffee, tea, and snacks at the Point Zero Café. Book readings, music, and other community events are also hosted at the coffee shop.
Joseph and Sheila Murumbi were Africa’s most famous private stamp collectors, and their collection of Pan African postage stamps is one of the world’s most notable. The collection includes African stamps dating to the mid 1800’s as well as modern stamps from the post-independence period. Along with stamps from many African, the collection also includes numerous definitive series of commemorative stamps called first covers. This room is also used as a children’s creativity room.
Joseph and Sheila Murumbi had an extensive collection of stamps from across Africa. An examination of the stamps can offer a comprehensive history of Africa. The stamps at the Nairobi Gallery are reprints, but the Murumbi’s original stamps can be seen at the Kenya National Archives.
Young artists can learn traditional and contemporary techniques in this room at the gallery. They include beadwork, crocheting, weaving/basketry, drawing & painting, book reading and storytelling.
This room also houses a safe that has remained sealed. Some people speculate the safe may hold important documents from Kenya’s colonial past.