Reclaiming Kenyan art from foreign museums

Monday November 25 2019

Children visiting the Nairobi National Museum. Africa has started a world-wide campaign to reclaim its art, and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) have not been left behind. PHOTO | FILE

In the 19th and 20th century, colonies in Africa were ripe for picking and plunder. Aside from its people and its natural resources, the ‘dark’ continent was also stripped of its art.

The artefacts were carried away from African communities and into the glass cases of Western museums. The justification? The natives, being uncultured, could neither create nor appreciate good art.

Since then, the ‘lost’ art has collected dust in foreign museums or has been auctioned off to the highest bidders. Africa has, however, started a world-wide campaign to reclaim its art and, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has not been left behind.

In this respect, the NMK, under its current project, known as the International Inventories Programme (IIP), aims to change the discussions around lost African art.


The IIP is an artistic, research and curatorial project that investigates the writings and conversations held about Kenyan cultural objects that exist in institutions outside the country. The programme will result in an exhibition accurately named Invisible Inventories.


The project has been done in partnership with the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM) in Cologne, the Weltkulturen Museum (WKM) in Frankfurt/Main and the Goethe-Institut Nairobi.

For artistic and cultural input, the museums have partnered with artistes from the NEST collective in Kenya and the SHIFT collective in Germany. The NEST collective, a multi-disciplinary collective of Kenyan creatives, is probably the best-placed community to offer artistic but cultural urgency to the recovery of Kenyan art.

The NEST collective has been behind award-winning projects such as: To Catch Dream (a fashion film), and Tuko Macho (a web series). This creative minds involved in this exhibition are Dr Njoki Ngumi and Jim Chuchu. The pair have collaborated before to create the award-winning anthology, Stories of Our Lives.


The museum has also expressed its hopes to open up discussions surrounding the recovery of African art.

“They [the exhibitions] also aspire to encourage public discourse into the complexities and varied viewpoints around diverse conceptions of heritage, erasures, and edits in object histories and provenances, object ownership and their movement across borders,” the IIP noted.
This collaboration between Kenyan and German museums and collectives will see the production of three exhibitions that will be showcased over the next two years.

The Invisible Inventories exhibition will be launched on Thursday 28th November at the National Museums in Nairobi.