The Nairobi Gallery
The thing about the Nairobi Gallery is that the entrance is at the point where naturally the exit would be. Actually, there is no entry point/gate under where the entrance and the welcome banner is hanged.
This is the first indicator that The Nairobi Gallery is not just your typical building, a fact I came to learn and expound more on from my tour around and from insights by the very resourceful docents hanging around and willing to assist.
“Where is the entrance?” I asked the guard at the gate next to Nyayo House
“To point zero or to the gallery?”
“What is point zero?”
“Ohh, to the gallery then.”
“Through here,” the guard pointed as she opened the gate.
From the guard’s perspective, point zero is the coffee bar next to the gallery. Which is correct in fact.
That is why, when I went in and standing next to the magnificent clay vessel by Magdalene Odundo the guide asked if I knew what ‘point zero’ was,
I confidently replied, “The coffee bar.”
She coyly smiled and informed; “True, it’s the coffee bar but more importantly, ‘point zero’ is the actual point from where all distances to all places in Kenya and beyond are measured.”
With that piece of salient historical information, my journey down Kenyan history for the said afternoon commenced.
Point Zero Landmark
The Nairobi Gallery is located at the old Provincial Commissioner’s office at the roundabout of Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue next to Nyayo House. The building which still exudes heavy European architectural feel was built in 1913 as a registration centre for the colonialists. It was also used as a courtroom, and a holding cell for the Africans found roaming the Nairobi streets without their passes.
“The cell is in fact still down there, but we currently use it as store,” Oda informed
The PC offices later moved to Nyayo house in 1917, with the Kanu government taking over the building up to 1999.
The building was sub sequentially officially opened in 2006 and currently houses the vast Murumbi African Heritage Collection.
Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was the second Kenyan vice president a position he served for only nine months. Murumbi played a particularly key legal role in the attainment of Kenya’s Independence and the drafting of the first Kenyan constitution.
Murumbi according to the films on show at the quarters and available literature, resigned from his political office because he felt the government was deviating from the principles from which the Kenyan independence had been fought on.
The second greatest gift from Murumbi to the Kenyan people is the active mission he undertook to collect and preserve the African culture in all its forms. He is reported as a well-travelled diplomat, a picture glaringly represented in his photos hanging on all walls of the Nairobi Gallery and the Kenya National Archives. From all these travels and being away from the country for extended periods of time, it is reported that Murumbi spoke little Swahili and during his campaign days, his colleague and friend Tom Mboya did the greatest chunk of his campaign communicating with the locals.
After his time in politics, Murumbi became the acting chairman of the Kenyan National Archives. Together with his wife Sheila and his long-time friend Alan Donovan (American Designer), the trio in 1972 opened the first Pan African gallery.
A stroll through the Nairobi Gallery will expose you not only to artefacts from the different cultures but from the African Continent at large. In there is a diverse collection of artefact ranging from ornaments, jewellery, fighting gears, bead work, adornments, cookery, textiles and costumes, books, furniture and a whole lot more.
Fascinating to also learn is the efforts it took to preserve these ornaments and get them under the management of the Kenyan National Museums.
While Murumbi and Sheila died in 1990 and 2000 respectively, and are buried at City Park, Alan Donovan is still alive and still visits the National Gallery. I learnt.
In one of the rooms under the National Gallery is an elaborate replication of Murumbi’s magnificent Muthaiga residence. The room depicts his grand sculptures, his vast library, the enormous sitting area complete with his actual photo albums and his well-maintained gardens.
At the farthest corner of the gallery is an exhibition room where pioneer artists have space to display their craft on a rotational basis just like in the Nairobi National Museum. The works on display here which are extraordinary as they are unique keep changing depending on the artist. It is also the only place where photography is not allowed in the whole museum.
More impressive is how there is always some unique piece of historical information to be learnt every time I dig into our history. For instance, did you know that in addition to being a carpenter, the first Kenyan President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was also a water meter reader?
Make a trip to the Nairobi Gallery; I promise, it is worth the one hundred and fifty shillings you will spend on the amount of Kenyan History you will learn.
If you are lucky on your visit, you will meet Rhoda who will show you some unbelievable beadwork from recycled newspaper by the artist Sanaa Gateja.
“So what is the difference between the Kenya National Archives and the Nairobi Gallery?” I asked one of the guides as I came to the end of my tour
“Nothing much. They both house majority of the Murumbi collection. But as you have seen, most of the collection is at the Nairobi Gallery as compared to the National Archives.”
PS: Thank You, Rhoda, Oda and everyone at the Nairobi Gallery, for your insights.