It was not the position he occupied as Kenya’s second Vice-President between May 1965-August 31, 1966, that made Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi (1911–1990) famous, but the phenomenal collection of rare African art and over 50,000 books and sheaths of official correspondence he spent a great part of his life putting together.
Born to a Goan trader and a Maasai woman, Joseph Murumbi spent the first 16 years of his life in India. His father had sent him to India when he was about 7 to study. Thereafter, he found work here and later in Somalia before returning to Kenya, where he found himself increasingly being sucked into the vortex of the liberation struggle.
Joe, as he was known, turned down several huge bids from overseas bidders for his vast art collection and sold it instead to the Kenya government at a concessionary rate. He specifically stipulated that the collection would be preserved at his Muthaiga home, which would be expanded to become the Murumbi Institute of African Studies, with a library, hostel and kitchen.
Unfortunately, unknown to him, the government subdivided the land and allocated it to developers. Some accounts say that he never recovered from the shock he experienced when he visited the site, only to find developers turning it into private real estate. He slipped away on June 22 1990, after suffering a heart attack and died shortly after. His wife, Sheila, followed thereafter in October 2000. The two lie buried by each other’s side outside the City Park cemetery.
A USD 50,000 Ford Foundation grant was to, later in the ’80s, facilitate the Murumbi Trust’s quest to restore, interpret, preserve and label the unique, historic collection of political, artistic, textile, material and cultural artefacts, now displayed in permanent glass showcases. The new gallery allows locals and visitors to Kenya to learn about and experience the continent’s array of creative and cultural diversity.
The National Archives department has set up a library containing some of the 8,000 ‘rare books’ (those published before 1900) entrusted to them upon the death of Joseph Murumbi.
Murumbi went on to co-found African Heritage with Alan Donovan which became the largest Pan-African art gallery on the continent.
Joseph Murumbi’s put together a unique collection that exists nowhere else in Africa. In fact, it is the richest yet found. Thanks to his keen eye for now-extinct African artefacts.
To understand how profoundly rare and unique this collection was, it included pieces such as the timeless mono print titled ‘Young Girl’ by renowned Nigerian Muraina Oyelami, the Ejiri carvings credited to Ijo artists, which reflect traces of ancient Cubism as a prevalent art form in the Niger Delta.
Equally impressive, the wooden Gelede masks stand on display with their gigantic elongated heads. The Yoruba community used the Gelede mask during special ceremonies held to worship the beauty of womanhood and witchcraft.
The Yatenge masks and clay pots styled in human form make part of the collection. The masks are common among the Bobo community from Burkina Faso. Other pieces in the collection include the Baoule and Senoufo masks from Ivory Coast. The Nimba masks are from Guinea, and the female masks are from Sierra Leone. The Mende people use female masks during young girls’ initiation rites. The masks comprise the few the Mende allow women to wear during ceremonies.
Several cotton appliqué pieces of Nigerian artist Samuel Ojo are on display alongside the ‘Mammy Wata’ carvings. The mammy wata represents a water spirit used for the purposes of entertainment and cult masquerades in eastern Nigeria.
The appliqués have mermaid-type tails while others wreathed in the shapes of snakes depict priestesses or diviners. The collection also boasts paintings by Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of Africa’s acclaimed living artists.
Closer to home are Makonde ivory, stone and ebony sculptures. Their distinctive shapes depict men or women in varied suggestive poses. Murumbi acquired these pieces from neighbouring Tanzania. A piece relating to the genesis of the Kikuyu community ably represents Francis Muthuri Amundi. Amundi takes a place among Kenya’s pioneer wood sculptors.
The primordial woman in the throes of childbirth sits at the base of the sculpture. Nine breasts symbolising the females who gave birth to Mumbi and her ‘sisters’ complete the piece. The maternal theme is also present in veteran Kenyan artist Rosemary Karuga’s clay sculpture ‘Mother and Child’. Other compatriots include the ceramist/clay potter Magdalene Odundo. Louis Mwaniki’s hilarious pencil work, though little-known, sits beside Elkana Ongesa’s soap and granite stone sculptures.
West African sculptures include Anok’s bird-like pieces from Guinea, soapstone sculptures from Sierra Leone, and Senoufo sculptures from Ivory Coast. The Senoufo pieces feature a Calao ancestral bird symbolizing leadership. Additionally, a Bawa owl mask from Burkina Faso and terra cotta clay sculptures from Cameroon complete the collection. Other African sculptures include Francis Nnagenda’s large wooden sculptures from Uganda and John Odoch’ameny’s molten metal sculptures.
Eli Keyune’s oil on canvas portraits dated from 1965-67 represent Uganda. Sudan has gouache on goatskin. Salih Mashamoun’s art piece, also. Salim served as a diplomat based in Nairobi in the mid-1970s. Ancient religious Ethiopian art in mural-like designs sits next to rare pieces of Coptic etchings.
These are a few descriptions of one of Africa’s riches art collections. Though estimated to number 8,000 a note pinned to his personal display case points out, “the collection herein is still in progress, still awaiting more memorabilia and awards given to the revered collector… these items are still in limbo in a warehouse near Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport after being stopped from being shipped out of the country…”
Kenya has much to thank Joseph Murumbi for its priceless masterpieces. They have made the country a top destination for artists and art enthusiasts the world over. It is for this great contribution that we honour Murumbi. He helped preserve a legacy of African culture and art. Because of him, Kenya occupies a place as a stronghold of ancient and contemporary African art.