Pre-Colonial Art at The Norfolk

Wood musician from Congo at Norfolk Hotel
Wood musician from Congo at Norfolk Hotel. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Some admirers of African art believe that only West Africans have produced great art. Those same so-called connoisseurs tend not to know much about contemporary African art.

At the same time, many of those conversant in the contemporary do not necessarily have much first-hand knowledge of what is often called ‘tribal’ art, a term I personally refrain from using.

It normally refers to pre-colonial African art, such as what you will find if you get over to Nairobi’s Fairmont Norfolk Hotel before the exhibition closes later today.

At the hotel, one will see some of the most magnificent examples of mainly West African sculpture that currently exist in Kenya (although there are also stunning replicas of bronze sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin at the Serena Hotel, the originals being mostly in the British Museum in London).

Sculptures, masks, spears and shields have been on display at the entrance of the Norfolk and in the adjoining Cin Cin Wing since late last week.


The exhibition, prepared for an African Art Week, has been curated by Lisa Christophersen and includes several pieces that she personally owns.

But the vast majority of these handsome wood and bronze works belong to an anonymous benefactor who recently made the painful decision to strip away all the ‘excess’ material things from his life and start living like an ascetic.

The man prefers to remain unknown, only acquainted with Ms Christoffersen whom he gave the green light to display and even sell his entire collection of Pan-African art.

The vast majority of them come from the Congo. Specifically, they come from the Kingdom of Kuba which had its heyday from the 17 to the 19 centuries.

Kikuyu warrior's carved wood

Kikuyu warrior's carved wood and leather shield hope this is helpful. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHEU | NMG

But there are also choice pieces from Benin where the ‘lost wax’ technique of casting bronze and brass was used from the 13th century in what is now Nigeria. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Benin was burnt to a pulp by the British in 1898. And most of the surviving bronze sculptures, plaques and heads were shipped off to Europe, mainly to Great Britain. But today, they can also be found in museums in Germany and US as well as in the British Museum in London.

How the collector managed to obtain the works that one will find strategically placed around the first floor of the Norfolk will remain a mystery so long as the collector remains tight-lipped and Ms Christoffersen keeps the secret as well.

But there is little doubt that the Benin bronze works on display are authentic.

In fact, all the pieces look like originals, from the Maasai spears (that Ms Christophersen has placed in a giant ceramic pot, as if the spears were potted plants) to the Benin ‘lost wax’ bronze plaque to the wooden masks, containers and sculpted heads from Congo to the bronze cow bell topped with an exquisitely shaped face from Gabon.

There were also several items from East Africa on display, most of which were more contemporary. These included the headrest/stools that Ms Christophersen said came from either Samburu, Turkana, Rendille or Borana. One stool that was more of a wooden (sofa-like) recliner also came from Samburu.

There were two Giriama ceremonial grave markers (which I believe were not meant to have been removed from their grave sites) and one lovely Makonde sculpture from Mozambique which might have been a pre-colonial creation.

The one item that I feel sure was pre-colonial was the Kikuyu wood and leather ceremonial shield. It is certainly an indigenous creation complete with a carefully carved interior side that has an arm hole and handle for the warrior to grasp.

It is quite a heavy shield suggesting the Kikuyu warrior had to be strong enough to use it in battle. The shield is one of the rarer pieces in the exhibition, on sale for Sh156,000.

The most pricey piece in the show is the Benin bronze plaque going for Sh360,000.