The perfect center of Nairobi

When I walked in through the doors of the Nairobi Gallery I knew there had to be something interesting about the small round lobby. The dartboard pattern of tiles on the floor pointed to the very center of the circular lobby, directly under the dome. Could it have held a Foucault’s pendulum at one time? I squinted up to the gallery and decided that the height did not look correct. The name of the cafe outside, Zero Point, should have alerted me if I’d paid attention to it.

But it wasn’t until I saw this plaque on the wall did the historical significance hit me. Nairobi was built in 1899 to be a railway depot on the Uganda Railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. The zero point would have been a survey benchmark in the construction of the railways by the British East India Company. By the time the railway was finished, Nairobi had begun to grow. After a major cholera outbreak in 1901, there was some talk of moving the township, but Railway engineers thought that it would remain an Indian township and could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.” Winston Churchill, traveling to see the railways in 1907 as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wrote that the place “enjoys no advantages as a residential site.” By then it was too late to shift the town.

By 1913, when the Provincial Commissioner’s office was constructed at this spot, Nairobi had “outgrown its swamp and tin-roof days”, as Beryl Markham writes in her book West by Night. Joseph Murumbi, independent Kenya’s second Vice-President, who eventually moved to this house, was two years old and living in India at that time. He moved back to Kenya and joined the African Union Party, becoming its general secretary in 1952, part of constituent assembly after independence, Foreign Minister, and finally the Vice-President, resigning at the end of 1966 and moving away from politics. The photo above shows a recreation of his study during the time that he lived here.

The core of the collection we saw was a bequest from his wife, Sheila Murumbi, to the Kenyan nation. The couple had been collectors of African art through their lives, and had encouraged the continuation of traditional forms in many ways. The lobby contained the two beautiful traditional carved doors which you see in the photos above. These are portals, so to say, through which you pass into the wonderful collection here. We were the only visitors during the two hours we spent here. Unfortunate, because it is a great collection, and a perfectly wonderful way to spend a morning when you pass through Nairobi.

Three African artists

When I saw the painting in the featured photo in Nairobi Gallery, I thought to myself “So like a Chagall.” Apparently Jak Katarikawe (born 1940 in Kigezi, Uganda, died October 19 2018) was sometimes called Africa’s Chagall for his whimsical paintings of elephants and cattle. In interviews he said that his sense of colour came from stained glass windows in the churches of Uganda. He was mentored by Sam Ntiru of the Makarere University’s art department, when he was a driver in the university. He moved to Kenya in the 1970s, and became professionally successful. This painting is probably from the 1970s.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 30 August 1932) experimented with techniques to make low-relief works through printing. The example in Nairobi Galery seems to be from his early experimental period when he started depositing bronze patinas on lino cuts. It would be interesting to see how he extended these methods over a large part of his lifetime, first using resin and plaster of Paris (which he called Plastographs), then metal foil, and finally artificial polymers which look like ivory.

Salih Abdou Mashamoun was born (in 1946?) in the village of Debeira in Wadi Halfa, Northern Sudan, which was inundated by the building of the Aswan High Dam. He was a poet and artist, and a Sudanese diplomat until the country became an Islamic state. In an interview, Mashamoun says that he was mentored by Seif Wanley in Alexandria, where he entered the university in 1964. He was the featured artist in the African Heritage exhibition in Nairobi in 1976 when it burnt down, so that much of his early work is now lost. This work, a gouache on stretched goatskin, is one of the two which were saved. It is from the period just before the fire.

These three artists whose works I saw in Nariobi Gallery stand at the beginning of the contemporary art of post-colonial Africa. It will be interesting to go back to Nairobi and explore the directions that their successors are taking.

Paintings from Nairobi

There’s wonderful contemporary art in Kenya, and, like much of the world’s contemporary art, it is driven by the human condition. But apart from this, there is also a stream of contemporary art which takes its inspiration from Kenya’s abundant wildlife. When I walked into Nairobi Gallery, a temporary exhibition was based on this theme. Some of the works can be seen in the gallery of photos below.