Why The Cradle Of Humankind Deserves its Dedicated Art Museum

Curator Lydia Gatundu Galavu
Curator Lydia Gatundu Galavu

I have been the Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) since 2010. The NMK manages regional museums across the country, and the Nairobi National Museum is the headquarters. When I was appointed art curator, I was only nine months into a new position as Programmes Coordinator in one of the units overseeing regional museums. I was just getting used to my new role, but my predecessor had gone for further studies. At first instance, I was surprised and a little unsettled with the changes, but since my innate affiliation is to the arts, I got on with it. The museum has several curators attached to different areas of expertise, who work hand in hand with the relevant museum research scientists. The NMK has one art curator, and that’s me. I curate most of the art exhibitions at the museum, but we also have guest curators. An example is the exhibition “In Vitro” by Brazilian artist Leo Coimbra, in December 2019. The artist designed her own exhibition plan, and I installed it with the museum’s exhibition team.

The Creativity Gallery. Although the three main pillars of the Nairobi National Museum are culture, nature, and history, the museum has set aside space for temporary exhibitions. One of these spaces is dedicated to art. So in essence, the museum’s fourth pillar is art. The space, which is 700sqm, is called Creativity Gallery and takes up the left wing of the museum’s first floor. In almost all of my exhibitions and projects I work in collaboration with the museum’s Exhibits Department which consists of designers, artists, architects and technicians. My designation reads contemporary art, but the scope of my curatorial practice encompasses NMK’s prehistoric art and ethno-art collections. I think my environment is a little different from many contemporary art curators, because I work in a multi-disciplinary research institute that requires me to not only curate art, but also to participate in the development of scientific exhibitions where art is included as an interpretation tool.

No dedicated art museum. Kenya has many culture, history, and nature museums across the country under the management of the NMK. What Kenya does not have, is a museum dedicated to the arts only. Basically, out of around 42 museums, sites and monuments, the Creativity Gallery is the only art gallery. Attempts to establish a National Art Gallery or Art Museum, including by late vice-president and collector Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi in the mid-60s, have failed for decades. Culture wasn’t included in Kenya’s economic plans until the early 70s.

What drives me the most in my job as a curator at the NMK is that dream of a National Art Gallery and how I can contribute to its realisation. This includes putting forward my best efforts as team leader, working on a proposal to revive the government’s interest in preserving the country’s creative heritage by establishing the much needed and expected National Art Gallery of Kenya. This is a project by the NMK and the government of Kenya. It proposes to provide the public with an opportunity to discover Kenya’s national art collection and art history. I would love to pursue my art during my retirement, and the thought of retiring in a country without a National Art Gallery scares me.

Lydia Gatundu Galavu, Artist talk with Jeffie Magina in his exhibition
Artist talk with Jeffie Magina for his solo “Butterflies”, at the Nairobi National Museum, Creativity Gallery, 2017.

The Creativity Gallery is the most spectacular space in the Nairobi National Museum. It’s spacious, and visitors like it because it has a calming effect. Visitors can sit and enjoy the artworks, or relax on the terrace overlooking the museum’s quadrangle garden where a recreation of Ahmed, Kenya’s most renowned elephant, stands in memory. My favourite spot is the terrace, especially in the morning because the sunrays flood the area. There are no images or detailed content of the gallery on the NMK website but there’s much to see about the Creativity Gallery and the various exhibitions at the Nairobi National Museum on its Facebook Page.

Curating outside the museum. At least once a year, I curate an exhibition for one or several artists, or for a non-museum project, in my private time. One such exhibition titled “The Red Exhibition” by artists Clavers Odhiambo and Richard Njogu Kuria, in 2016, stands out for me because of the remarkable trajectory that the artists’ careers have taken since. Both were upcoming at the time, but amazingly certain, proactive, and focused on the route they wanted their art careers to take. Today, they are both among Kenya’s most outstanding young artists.

The biggest reward is watching the career of young artists, whose talents have been nurtured over the years through their participation in museum education art programmes and exhibitions, grow.

Curator Lydia Gatundu Galavu With artist John Gitonga at the Nairobi National Museum
With artist John Gitonga at the Nairobi National Museum Art Shop, 2019.

The biggest challenge is realizing unique and compelling exhibitions and art programmes on low budgets. The NMK is a government institution, and budgets are almost always on the low side. It has in its custody a prime collection of prehistoric art, that includes rock art, jewellery and pottery that has never been put on public view. The reason is unavailability of funds. Kenya is prided as the place of origin of humankind, owing to historic archeological discoveries in the region. The Human Origins permanent gallery is the flagship of the NMK. No doubt, an exhibition showcasing the country’s art of the same period would be truly fascinating. But so far, a proposed exhibition script and layout design for Kenya’s prehistoric art exhibition sits in a file, awaiting funds.

Another example of a collection that is awaiting funds, is the one that consists of 43 oil paintings by Sao Gamba (1940-2004). In October 2012, I curated an exhibition of these works, titled “African Traditions and Culture”, at the Nairobi National Museum. Sao Gamba is famed at home as the director of Kenya’s first local feature film, Kolor Mask, in the mid-80s. He acquired his MA from the prestigious Film School in Lodz, in Poland, in 1964. Those who see his paintings and sculptures are surprised that he was just as great a visual artist as he was a filmmaker. Sao Gamba’s deep rooted beliefs in traditional practices and African spirituality lead him to document Dholuo traditions and culture. This series of paintings not only intrigued museum audiences with their bold execution in form, colour, and detail, but also it took them on a mystical discovery of traditional practices many have long forgotten. After the 2012 exhibition of the entire collection, we briefly showed half of it in 2014, during an art education programme. Unfortunately since, although the 43 paintings are in the custody of the Nairobi National Museum, they cannot be exhibited appropriately because they require conservation, and reframing.

I am more of a big picture person. So when it comes to projects, even though I easily come up with creative ideas and strategies, I will always need to incorporate other colleagues like designers, architects, and researchers to help me implement them and take care of details.

Curator Lydia Gatundu Galavu with artists exhibition designer Irene Koyier and artist Yoni Waite
With exhibition designer Irene Koyier and artist Yoni Waite. Nairobi National Museum, Creativity Gallery, 2017.

I do not relate my activities as a curator and as an artist well at all. I feel that I was much freer with my thoughts and experimentations when I was working on my art before I became a curator. As a curator, I find myself self-judging, and this restricts my freedom when creating my own work. I make less art, and in between long periods of time.

As an artist I am drawn to other forms of art such as performing arts and music. I will be happy to sit and watch a good play. As for music, I enjoy anything that feels good to my ears. I am not aligned to any specific genre. I will find something interesting in any genre from local benga and rhumba sounds, to other sounds from around the world.

To keep sane I practice yoga. My interest in yoga came after painting my bathroom. I was excited about the new lilac colour scheme I was changing to, but I strained my back painting it, and I didn’t notice until a few days later. It became a real problem after that. My daughter, who is also an artist, introduced me to yoga and it helped. So I do it when I feel tired, stressed, bored, or for whatever muscle pain I feel. It’s a good stretch.

Free-flowing tops. I enjoy sewing. I sew my own simple tops. Usually, they are one piece free-flowing light fabric tops which I like to wear with comfortable pants.

Studio visit at artist Kamunya Wanjuki with my artist daughter Martha Shavuya
Studio visit with artist Kamunya Wanjuki and my daughter, artist Martha Shavuya. Karen Village Artist Studios, 2016.

Home sweet home. I love being at home. The phrase ‘feel at home’ is for me simply just that. Be home, make some pancakes and relax before the memories of closing deadlines spoil the feeling.

The perfect future invention for me would be an Ugali maker. Ugali is a stable food in Kenya. It’s a maize flour pap that is made by pouring flour to boiling water in a pot, little by little, and stirring it continuously until it hardens to a rubbery feel. It can be quite tiring to make, especially for large numbers of people. It’s made manually, and so far, there is no invention that can make one quickly and perfectly.

A book that still haunts me is “Kenya Peoples in the Past” by Hilary Ng’weno. This is a little book about Kenya’s legends from the past, and the heroic deeds associated with them. These legends are full with heroes who possess super powers. Stories that built confidence and virtues. The book was part of the lower primary school curriculum in the mid-70s, and provided one of the most intriguing experiences I ever had as a child. It fascinated children’s mind, allowing them to dream and reinvent themselves as their favourite heroes. The book is no longer used in schools, but it left a lasting effect as it evoked a sense of heroism and patriotism. It’s not online and it’s not in bookshops either. There’s a copy in our National Archives, and probably some in homes of people who held onto their copies. The fact that it was withdrawn from schools and not even available is a concern to me.

More heroes. The second time I had an experience with Kenyan heroes from the past, was as part of the team that curated the “Shujaa Stories” exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum, and the online exhibition “Shujaa Stories: 21 Superheroes of Kenya“, a collaborative exhibition between the National Museums of Kenya, Google Arts and Culture, and Shujaa Stories Ltd. The project brings to life Kenyan heroes and culture over 400 years. It’s aimed at the youth and uses digital media as its main medium.

If I wasn’t curating I would be a full time artist.

Lydia Gatundu Galavu

Curator at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK)

Nairobi, Kenya


Lydia Gatundu Galavu is Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). She is based at the Nairobi National Museum in the heart of the capital city Nairobi. She is an artist with a background in art education and exhibits design. She holds an MA in Anthropology from the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi. Her primary responsibility at NMK is the care, presentation, interpretation and acquisition of works of art in the museum collection, In 2016 she won the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) Scholar/Curatorial Fellowship in Lagos and Abeokuta, Nigeria where she conducted research on the over 7,000 art pieces dating ca. C9th to present. The research was for her PhD preliminary research plan “Displaying Traditional Art in Contemporary African Time: A critical analysis on the best practices for contextualizing traditional art within its home environment”. Lydia is a member of International Council of Museums (ICOM), American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and International Conference of Museums (CIMAM) which have provided her opportunities for travel, exposure and important forums to gather the latest trends in contemporary art practice, and collections care.

Browse Lydia Gatundu Galavu’s profile on artcuratorgrid.com

Art critic and writer.

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