Asian Africans establish heritage gallery at National Museum


CS Amina Mohamed at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Asian African Heritage Gallery at Nairobi National Museum with members of the community on March 24, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

Kenyans started talking about a National Art Gallery back in 1966 when then Vice President Joseph Murumbi called upon his government to get behind his proposal to establish such a gallery. His proposal fell on deaf ears.

Periodically, the issue of a national art gallery has been raised, most recently when the Nairobi National Museum held an exhibition entitled ‘Kesho Kutwa’ organized by the well-known art collector Tony Wainaina and including artworks by some of Kenya’s most prominent artists. 

But it also elicited little government response.

Yet it was 1997 when members of the Asian community first muted the idea of an Asian African Heritage Gallery. It only took three years after that before this resourceful group of organizers managed the means to have a six-month exhibition at Nairobi National Museum. 

The show wasn’t permanent, but it proved to be so popular that it remained on display for the next five years. 

It was “only taken down when remodeling of the entire Museum commenced thereafter,” wrote members of the Asian-African Heritage Trust, one of the four organizations that have backed the concept of such a gallery from the beginning. 

The others are The Asian Foundation, Chandaria Foundation, and Desai Foundation.

The big four came together in 2009 to reactivate the gallery-building process, this time to re-install a permanent exhibition. 

Their big break came in 2013 when former President Mwai Kibaki addressed a gathering of the Asian Foundation. It was Kibaki himself who gave full government backing to the concept of a permanent exhibition “in order to promote cross-cultural understanding in our country,” he said.

On no uncertain terms, President Kibaki stated that he “…authorized and supported the establishment of the Asian-African Heritage exhibition in a permanent purpose-built exhibition hall at the National Museum in Nairobi.”


CS Amina Mohamed at the opening of the Asian African Heritage Gallery, (L-R) Jeff DeKock, Exhibit Designer, Mansuk Suthar, Construction, Hasu Devani, Chairman, Asian African Heritage Gallery, PS Dr Kevit Desai, Hon. CS Amina Mohamed, and Mrs Gita Devani on Mach 24, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

With that kind of endorsement, the four community-based organizations together with various partners confidently proceeded to plan, design, fund, and build the gallery. 

It’s taken almost a decade since then to get all the parts in place but last Thursday afternoon, March 24th, the courtyard at the Nairobi National Museum was filled with friends and members of the Asian-African community to celebrate the historic launch of the Asian African Heritage Gallery.

Occupying the pride of place in what was formally known as the Mammal Hall, the Gallery greets you even before you reach the main entrance of the Museum. 

The room is vast and beautifully designed to seem even larger than it actually is.

But only one-third of the exhibition is now complete. Against a background of sky-blue painted walls are sections devoted to a range of themes, including Maritime Heritage, the Old Town of Mombasa, the railways, and assorted postcards of the early years of Asians arriving in the region. 

What remains to be curated are a dozen more sections covering Asian-Africans’ role in everything from commerce, philanthropy, and domestic life to sports, law, media, and the intellectual and activist role that Asian Africans have played in the Independence struggle against colonial rule.

Meanwhile, the gallery organizers have invited members of the public to take part in putting finishing touches on the space by either loaning or donating additional artefacts and photographs that could enhance our understanding of the tremendous role that Asian Africans have played in the historic development of Kenya’s political, economic, religious, cultural, educational, and social life.

“Before the end of this year, we expect to fully complete the exhibition,” said Nazim Mithe shortly after the official launch. Mr. Mithe is co-Chairman of the Asian African Heritage Gallery. 

He was among a number of eminent Asian Africans who have been involved with building the Heritage gallery. 

They included Dr Manu Chandaria, founder Chairman of the Asian Foundation and a key donor, PS Dr Kevit Desai, grandson of the late founder Chairman of the Desai Foundation, Dr. Chandu Sheth, past Chairman of the Asian Foundation, Mr Hasu Devani, Chairman of the Asian African Heritage Gallery, and Meera Pandit, CEO of the Asian Foundation.

Additionally, the High Commissioner of India to Kenya, H.E. Dr. Virander Paul shared his full support for the Gallery as did Mr Stanvas Ongalo, the Acting Director General of the National Museums of Kenya.

AAH gallery interior (1)

Interior of the new Asian African Heritage Gallery at Nairobi National Museum on March 24, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

Unfortunately, Mr. Pheroze Nowrojee, as Chairman of the Asian African Heritage Trust, was meant to speak at the launch on ‘The History and Meaning of the Asian African Heritage Trust’, but he was unwell and had to cancel.

Fortunately, giving her full backing to the Gallery was our Minister of Sports, Culture, and Heritage, Amb. Dr. Amina Mohamed who gave special thanks to the Asian African community for their generous philanthropy which has known no bounds.