This story was the cover story in DN2 on the last Tuesday in February. It has generated quite a ripple as some people love the way Alan Donovan has memorized Kenya's greatest art collectors, Joe and Sheila Murumbi. Others feel the collections are taking up too much space which should be left to contemporary living Kenya artists.........
SHEILA MURUMBI’S COLLECTIONS COME TO NAIROBI GALLERY
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru February 25, 2013
It was during his days living in exile in the 1950s that Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first foreign minister and second Vice president, met a humble librarian named Sheila Ann Kaine while he was scouring book shelves in a London library for materials on Africa.
There were instant sparks as they clearly had much in common: Both were book lovers and both were avid collectors, he of Africana texts, she of stamps.
Within no time, the two were spending weekends together, trekking to antique shops and book stores in search of unusual stamps and rare books.
“Few people know it but Sheila actually got Joe started collecting African art and artifacts,” said Alan Donovan, co-owner with the Murumbis of the original African Heritage Pan African Gallery which they launched in 1972, long after Joe had left the political field to pursue his passion for African art.
“He was working for the Moroccan Embassy at the time, making ten pounds a week. But he wanted to buy an ivory horn from Congo so he began paying for it by installments. The shop keeper was so impressed that Joe wanted to own it so he could take it back ‘home’ to Africa that he eventually gave it to him as a gift.”
That gift served as a seed that grew to become one of the largest African art collections in the region and possibly in the world. And since Sheila also got Joe into collecting rare stamps, by the time he died in 1990, their shared stamp collection was said to be second only to the Queen of England’s!
A major chunk of that stamp collection is currently on display in the Kenya National Archives, part of the first floor Murumbi Collections that were formally opened at the Archives in 2006.
Yet there are so many more Murumbi collections that were either secretly sent out of the country to the UK or locked up in storage for almost a decade after Sheila’s untimely death in 2000. It is the stuff that her distant relations left behind after they were stopped from shipping it all out that will go on display at the old PC’s Office hopefully in the next few weeks. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
Having inherited everything from Joe’s estate as per the will he wisely left behind, Sheila’s trove of earthly treasures included not only African but also European art that Joe had collected largely while serving four years as Kenyatta’s first Foreign Minister.
Joseph Murumbi with Kenya President Jomo Kenyatta
Joseph Murumbi with Kenya President Jomo Kenyatta
During that same period, he officially opened every Kenyan embassy in Africa, thus giving him immense opportunities to expand his indigenous African art collection. Unfortunately, he chose to sell a good chunk of his collections to the Kenya government in the mid-1970s after a fluke fire burned down the original African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue.
“I was ready to buy a ticket and go back to the States after the fire,” said the former USAID field worker who first met Joe and Sheila in 1970 during the Nairobi opening of his exhibition of indigenous Turkana artifacts which Donovan had personally collected. They teamed up to start their Pan African gallery soon after that
“But when Joe asked me to stay on so we could rebuild the gallery, I agreed to stay,” he added.
In order to reconstruct African Heritage from scratch, Murumbi agreed to sell his one significant asset to the Kenya Government, his precious Africana collection including his much-loved Muthaiga home.
Such were the sort of selfless sacrifices that Joe was prepared to make to advance the cause of contemporary African culture, including Kenyan art. Fortunately, much of his East African art collection is still intact since a good deal of it was obtained after the 1977 sale. That collection, including a remnant of the Murumbis’ once extensive set of Swahili furniture, will soon be at the old PC’s office on the corner of Kenyatta and Uhuru Highway. Unfortunately, much of their Swahili furnishings were either sold or sent abroad, contrary to the wishes of Joe.
“He had been explicit about not wanting his collections leaving Kenya,” said Donovan, who tried his best to stop the expatriation of the remaining Murumbi collections after Sheila died in 2000. But in spite of his being the Administrator of her estate, since she had left no legal will, he had to obey a Court order that compelled him to find any of her living heirs as they had first entitlement to her property.
Sheila had never met the distant cousins, Justin and Annabel Darlow, who Donovan finally found in the UK. “But she had met their mother who had treated Joe with disdain when they were introduced. Sheila couldn’t stand the woman,” he said.
But as the Darlows got a green light from the Court, they proceeded to liquidate as much of Sheila’s property as they could. The rest they put in containers and began shipping them out to UK.
Fortunately, Donovan got wind of their plan and got the process stopped before all of Sheila’s collections left Kenya, never to be seen again.
“I enlisted the help of Moody Awori, who was Kenya’s Vice President at the time. He was quick to get the shipments stopped. Nonetheless, the content of the remaining containers has been in storage at the airport until recently.”
It took almost a decade for the cousins to relinquish their claim to those containers. Haggling between theirlawyers and lawyers for the Murumbi Trust (established in 2003), National Archives and National Museums of Kenya went on for years. It ended when the Darlows finally agreed to sign away their claim to the remaining goods belonging to someone they called “Stella Kaine”.
“They couldn’t even get her name right,” said Donovan who reckoned the value of what they took out of Kenya is incalculable, “But at least the rest is remaining here.”
Donovan, who worked closely with Sheila during the last decade of her life, has felt personally responsible for seeing that what is left of the Murumbis’ artistic and cultural treasure trove be accessible to the Kenya public, which was always the wish of both Joe and Sheila.
He has felt doubly responsible because as he put it: “She had asked me to help her start up a Sheila Murumbi Trust which would provide scholarships to Maasai girls to go to school, which I never got around to doing. I was too involved in my own problems with the Gallery that her untimely death took me totally by surprise,” he confessed, clearly feeling the stress of not having attended to the one request she had made of him before she died.
“I had always assumed she had a will since she often asked me if I had written mine. I didn’t realize she didn’t have one herself, but that is something I probably would have discovered and done something about if we had established her trust,” he added.
Feeling that the Darlows would never have come to Kenya if Sheila had a will and the Trust been established, Donovan’s sense of duty, obligation and guilt is partly why he has worked so diligently since her death to ensure her collections are protected and preserved.
Yet Sheila’s stuff is still under lock and key, only now it’s at the Nairobi National Museum where it has been stored in less than optimal conditions since its removal from the airport stores.
Yet Donovan feels confident that Sheila’s stuff is soon to be released. Based on his past experience working with the National Museums, starting with his collaboration with the former National Museum director Richard Leakey, he has had excellent relations with most of the Museum staff.
For instance, it was Leakey who first approached him in the 1970s with the proposal that African Heritage help him establish a Culture Trail of indigenous artifacts to overlap the already established Nature Trail which stretched from the Nairobi Museum all the way down to the Nairobi River. The idea was revived again in the 1990s when the Museum negotiated to buy all of African Heritage including the mile-long Culture Trail. “Also included was a plan to build a two-story African Heritage Kenya Gallery and transform the former PC’s residence into a restaurant with a room celebrating each of the regional museums. But then, the Museum’s offer was just too low for me to accept,” Donovan said. It was not long thereafter that he was told to get out of the PC’s house since a new group was moving in called Kuona Trust.
Donovan says he doesn’t blame the Museum for his having been cast out of the PC’s house so unceremoniously in 1995. But now he admits he might have accepted their bid to buy AH if he had it to do all over again
In fact, the Museum came to African Heritage’s rescue in 1997 when the I&M bank, (who owned to building where the Gallery was housed) notified him that the Gallery had to move out of where it had been for the last 25 years.
It was the then Museum director Dr. Isahakia who suggested the Gallery move over to the old PC’s office, the space that eventually became the Nairobi Gallery.
Unfortunately, that plan also never came to fruition in spite of Donovan successfully organizing an unprecedented street fair in 1997 (complete with African Heritage models walking down Kenyatta Avenue wearing AH original fashion designs) specifically to celebrate the new chapter in the gallery’s life. The fair was meant to mark the closing of the I&M site and the opening of African Heritage anew. Ironically, the old PC’s office was the place that Joe Murumbi had originally envisioned becoming the ‘Kenya National Art Gallery’, although he could never get that plan passed in Parliament.
The reason the Gallery didn’t move in at that time was because the premises were occupied by a crony of a Nairobi KANU boss who physically fought to have Donovan and Sheila literally thrown out of the building.
“And when we went to the Museum to protest, the [crony] called in the KANU boss who in turn went to the President [Moi] who sided with KANU man and [his crony].
That was the end of the matter, although there is an element of sweet justice ever since Dr Farah, the current Museum director, invited Donovan to bring the remaining Sheila Murumbi Collections for display at the PC’s office.
‘Initially I said ‘no’, not unless we got a new gate, fence and car park that clearly distinguished us from Nyayo House,” he said.
Furthermore, Donovan said he wouldn’t ask for funding from the Museum. Instead, if Farah approved, he would take on the task of finding the funds to complete the project.
The other point that was not negotiable was opening up the front entrance of the building so the public could come in from Uhuru Highway, not Kenyatta Avenue.
Currently, all of these proposals are being put into place. The clean-up and beautification process is well under way, Donovan having gotten a grant from Stanbic Bank to do the job.
The one big hold up to all the rooms being filled with the Sheila Murumbi Collections – including ones filled with African artifacts, jewelry, textiles, and furnishings from Sheila and Joe’s last home on Riara Road—is bureaucracy at the Museum. That last bottleneck is now slowing down a process that began more than 50 years ago when Joe and Sheila first spelled out their goal to strengthen fellow Kenyans’ appreciation of African culture by bringing the best of it back to the region.
But not all the rooms will be occupied with Sheila and Joe’s collections. Instead, the biggest room will be reserved for revolving exhibitions of contemporary Kenyan art. That won’t fulfill the Murumbis’ dream of establishing a National Art Gallery, but it will go some distance toward making their dream come true.