From left to right: Ancent Soi, Sanaa Gateja, Elkana Ongesa, Expedito Mwebe Kibulla, Jak Katarikawe, John Odochameny, Francis Nnaggenda, Magdalene Odundo with son Marimba.
Joseph Murumbi, the second Vice President of Kenya was Africa’s greatest cultural collector. He was an ardent supporter of the pioneer artists of East Africa, those artists who started their careers, against all odds, shortly after independence.
In fact, when he joined with Alan Donovan to open Africa’s first Pan African Gallery, African Heritage, he made his entire opening speech to be an appeal to Margaret Kenyatta, the then mayor of Nairobi, to support these artists, especially Francis Nnaggenda, who was teaching at the University of Nairobi at that time. He said he had bought five of the monumental works by this artist although no other African had ever bought one. He asked the mayor to buy Nnaggenda’s huge works to display in public places in Nairobi. This fell on deaf ears and Francis migrated to the USA where he stayed for 25 years before returning to become Chairman of Fine Arts at Makerere University in Kampala. One of his colossal works, the “Mother and Child” which stands in front of the National Museums of Kenya was commissioned by Joseph Murumbi.
Other pioneer artists have left East Africa for lack of support and became successful abroad like Magdalene Odundo, the only Kenyan to have received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) from the queen of England for her brilliant ceramic works (she is now achieving international acclaim for her phenomenal glass works: see photo).
The pioneer artists who have stayed in East Africa have fared less well, like the brilliant sculptor Elkana Ongesa, the late artistic genius Expedito Mwebe, prolific metal artist John Odochameny, self trained artist Ancent Soi, “Africa’s Chagall” Jak Katarikawe, bead king Sanaa Gateja and the Malindi-based Richard Onyango among others.
All of these artists have exhibited their works in the “Pioneer Gallery” inside the Old PC’s Office in the epicenter of Nairobi. Many of them have works on permanent display as part of the Murumbi African Heritage Collections at the Nairobi Gallery there. The Murumbi Trust has sought support from the American University in the USA, among others, to take the works of these aging artists on a travelling exhibition of the USA. This would be a marvelous way to give these artists the publicity they deserve as well as promote tourism to Kenya (see sidebar “Masterpieces of East African Artists” proposal).