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 in 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 sub-divided the land and allocated it to developers. It is said 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 2 are 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 had a keen eye for now extinct African artefacts and his collection is like none other that exists in Africa – it is the richest yet found.
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 are the wooden Gelede masks, whose gigantic heads are elongated in a traditional style. The Gelede mask was used during special ceremonies held to worship the beauty of womanhood and witchcraft among the Yoruba community.
Also part of the collection are Yatenge masks and clay pots styled in human form, common among the Bobo community from Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast’s Baoule and Senoufo masks, Nimba masks from Guinea, female masks from Sierra Leone used by the Mende during young girls’ initiation rites – one of the few ceremonies in which women were allowed to wear masks.
Several cotton appliqué pieces of Nigerian artist Samuel Ojo are on display alongside the ‘Mammy Wata’ carvings, which represent a water spirit used for the purposes of entertainment and cult masquerades in eastern Nigeria.
Produced by Ibibio carvers, the appliqués have mermaid-type tails while others would be wreathed in shapes of snakes meant to depict priestesses or diviners. Paintings by one of Africa’s acclaimed living artists, Bruce Onobrakpeya, can also be viewed.
Closer to home are Makonde ivory, stone and ebony sculptures whose distinctive shapes depict men or women in varied suggestive poses. These pieces were acquired by Murumbi from neighbouring Tanzania. One of Kenya’s pioneer wood sculptors, Francis Muthuri Amundi, is represented by a piece relating the genesis of the Kikuyu community.
At its base is the primordial woman in throes of childbirth while the shape of 9 breasts symbolic of the females who gave birth to Mumbi and her ‘sisters’.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, and little-known Louis Mwaniki, whose hilarious pencil work sits besides Elkana Ongesa’s soap and granite stone sculptures.
Other sculptures from west Africa include the Guinean Anok’s bird-like pieces, soap stone sculptures from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast’s Senoufo sculpture depicting a Calao ancestral bird regarded as symbol of leadership, a Bawa owl mask from Burkina Faso and terra cotta clay sculptures from Cameroon. From the other side of the continent are the Ugandan Francis Nnagenda’s gigantic wooden sculptural art and John Odoch’ameny’s molten metal sculptures.
Uganda is also represented by Eli Keyune’s oil on canvas portraits dated from 1965-67, and Sudan by gouache on goatskin art pieces by Salih Mashamoun, a former diplomat based in Nairobi in the mid-1970s. Ethiopian ancient religious art in mural-like designs is displayed next to rare pieces of Coptic etchings.
These are a few descriptions of one of Africa’s riches art collections and 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 that have made the country a top destination for artistes and art enthusiasts the world over. It is for this great contribution in helping preserve a legacy of African culture and art and in defining Kenya as a stronghold of ancient and contemporary African art that Kenya Geographic honours Joseph Murumbi as a hero worthy of a place in our hall of fame.