Donovan’s final act


Founder of African Heritage Alan Donovan. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Four months before Alan Donovan passed on peacefully on December 5, 2021 at his home at African Heritage House, he was boarding a plane headed for Los Angeles where he had big plans.

Accompanied by Kenyan photographer Paul Ekhaba, Donovan was intent on selling his LA condo and bringing back to Kenya all the African art, artifacts, and textiles that he had accumulated there over the past 25 years.

“It was as if he was tidying up various loose ends of his life, as if he knew his end was drawing near,” his long-time friend and driver, Tom Otieno tells BDLife.

Donovan’s traveling companion Ekhaba confirms that sentiment. “Throughout the trip, Alan was giving me instructions about what to do with his things after he was gone,” he recalls.

Not that the 83-year-old’s powers were waning. On the contrary, ever since he’d regained consciousness after being in a coma for four straight months, Donovan looked super-energized to take on multiple projects that he seemed in a hurry to complete. One of them was bringing back to Kenya all the African art he had left both in Europe and the US.

His LA collection might not compare in size or scale to the Africana material culture that one can find in many major arts or ethnographic museums like the British Museum. Having done an inventory of everything he was bringing back with him, Donovan counted just over 150 items.

Relatively few of those were from Kenya. But it’s still significant that they included early paintings by Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe, a fabulous clay vessel by Magdalene Odundo, and sculpture by Elkana Ong’esa which Donovan acquired in the 1970s when Elkana exhibited at African Heritage Gallery. He also brought back beaded Luo chairs and Pokomo handwoven mats.

“Alan also collected a beautiful assortment of Turkana ivory lip plugs, which he left behind because he got them before the government put a ban on ivory,” says Paul. “He was waiting to find out if the Kenya government would allow him to bring them back, so they are still in storage,” he adds. “The only other items Alan left behind were several that he was donating to his alma mater, UCLA

Donovan also brought back his collection of Maasai and Bakuba spears as well as a wide assortment of necklaces that he’d designed out of semi-precious stones, aluminum, resin, amber, and Egyptian facience.

Otherwise, the vast portion of what he brought back was from West Africa, and more specifically from Nigeria where he first landed in Africa as a US relief worker during the Biafran war in 1967.

These included everything from Yoruba Ibedji dolls and talking drums, a Gelede masquerade mask (in three parts), Orista-ita religious mask, Shango priest’s Agbada robe and sculpture, Igbo Ikenga sculpture, and paintings by everyone from Bruce Onobrakpeya, Twins Seven Seven, Asiro Olatunde, and Niki Seven Seven Okundeye to Joseph Olabade, Jacob Afolabi, and Chief Muraina whose paintings were the first African art Donovan ever bought.

But Donovan also brought back art and artifacts from Benin (Dahomey lost wax figurine and brass Jigida pendant), Cameroon (cast brass king sculpture and feather headdresses), Comora (Lamp), Congo (Royal Bakuba cloth), Ethiopia (Silver crosses), Ghana (Ashante gold boxes, fans, and handwoven Ewe cloth), Madagascar (Handwoven raw silk Lamba mena), Mali (Mud cloth tapestries), Mauritania (Tie-dye textiles), Niger (handwoven raffia cloth), South Africa (Zulu hats), and Zimbabwe (handmade brass lamp).

On his way back from the US, Donovan and Ekhaba stopped off in Paris where the former co-director (with Kenya’s former Vice President Joseph Murumbi) of African Heritage Pan-African Gallery had supplied several Parisian art galleries with African art.

From there, he retrieved a number of paintings, textiles, and unusual items such as three priceless self-portraits by the acclaimed Mexican artist, Frida Kaylo.

The question is now what will happen to all of these priceless works of art? And what will happen to all the projects Donovan had started, including the Donovan-Murumbi Pan African Research Centre which he renamed Gurunsi Memorial House, after the black and white houses once built in Northern Ghana and Zimbabwe.

According to Tom Otieno, who Donovan made Executor of his will, the projects will continue according to the vision that Donovan had shared with Otieno and others, including members of the Trust that he had established before he passed.

“Alan had wanted African Heritage House to remain open for business, even after he was gone, so we continue,” says Otieno, a man who had worked closely with Donovan for nearly 20 years.