Having just celebrated his 50th anniversary since he first came to Africa in 1967, it’s about time to appraise the impact of Alan Donovan on the region, or at least on Nairobi and Kenya’s contemporary art scene.
Initially, the American designer and CEO of African Heritage House came to the continent not intending to plunge into the depths or even the shallows of a fledgling African art scene. Donovan came to work in Nigeria as a USAID relief worker in Biafra.
At the time, Biafra was a war zone from which Donovan himself found relief once he travelled around the country and made his way to the amazing village of Oshogbo. It was a haven filled with artists of all types, including musicians, poets, painters and above all, followers of a deep and diverse cosmology including gods celebrated by local people with ceremonies largely unknown in the West.
Before Nigeria, Donovan had landed in Ghana where he had readily found indigenous art forms existing side by side of cosmopolitan characters who had just gained the country’s independence the decade before.
But it was the dynamism of Nigerian culture and art that convinced Donovan he wasn’t in a hurry to leave the region; neither was he willing to work much longer for the US government. So he took off and made his way to Kenya across the Sahara desert and through the semi-arid region of northern Kenya. That was where he was again charmed by the indigenous African arts and crafts of the local people.
Turkana-land is where Donovan began his collecting of African material culture, not as a scholar or social researcher but as an exhibitor whose first showing of Turkana artefacts became the occasion for his meeting former Vice President Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila.
Their friendship blossomed from the first day they met. Murumbi initially wanted Alan to go back to Turkana and collect a second set of their artefacts for him. From there Murumbi shared his vision with Alan, of wanting to build a beautiful Pan-African gallery and research centre where Africans could come from all across the region and the diaspora to do their own research on Pan-African art and culture.
From that moment on, Donovan was dedicated to fulfilling the Murumbi dream. Together they built African Heritage Pan-African Gallery starting in 1972. Over the years, the gallery exhibited African artists who were Murumbi’s favourites, such as sculptors like Elkana Ong’esa, John Odoch Ameny, Expedito Mwebe and painters like Theresa Musoke and Jak Katarikawe.
Plus one of Donovan’s specialties was fusing indigenous materials with Western ideas of fashion, design, utility and functionality to create new styles of contemporary African culture. They were hybrid styles which critics would disparage for being too commercial and simply aiming to cultivate markets among Kenya’s burgeoning tourist economy.
But even as his designs were ridiculed by a cynical few for being just another form of curio, they were also being copied by ambitious Africans who could see that Donovan’s designs sold readily to foreigners.
What’s more, he was creating employment opportunities for hundreds of young men and women at a time when rural to urban migration was heating up and joblessness had already become a serious social problem.
Setting up a series of workshops for making everything from jewellery and Kisii stone crafts to tailoring, Donovan frankly worked like a maniac once he and Murumbi created their pan African gallery.
At one stage, he was even supplying fashionable shops in the States like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and the Banana Republic with original African Heritage designs. But that was in between his traveling for the Gallery to over 20 African countries to collect artefacts, artworks and especially textiles to bring home to Nairobi.
The impact of Donovan’s and African Heritage’s initiatives to advance what was and continues to be a decidedly hybridized African culture is yet to be measured in full.
But after colonial powers played such a profound and detrimental role in destroying indigenous cultures, traditions and religions, Donovan’s determination to reconstruct African fashion, beauty, business and culture was a blessing in ways that are not yet fully recognized.
But Donovan also did his part to promote local talents, doing his own form of ‘capacity building’ by, for instance, training artisans like Johnson Njenga in replicating elements of indigenous culture which had already been lost.
Yet there is little doubt that Mr Donovan’s role in reviving those African cultures that were crippled under colonialism is yet to be fully appreciated. At his 50th anniversary celebration which coincidentally was the African Heritage Night at Alliance Francaise, the former AH model and designer Emma Too observed that his role in developing Kenyan culture and the arts has been misunderstood, undervalued and the man was yet to receive the full recognition he deserved.
In part that may be because he’s never given up his American citizenship and never tried to be anyone other than himself.
It could also be as his detractors (like Sidney... have argued) his role has been more commercial than cultural, more Eurocentric than Afro-centric.
Or it could be there’s an issue of mistaken identity since historically, the art scene in Kenya has been controlled by expatriate Europeans or Asians in the business of selling curios. Donovan could have easily been mistaken for yet another exploitative European who made sales off Africans’ achievements but hands over a small percentage to the African workers.
Either way, Donovan is no doubt a clever businessman who knows how to create extravaganzas using basic elements of African culture and re-shaping them into works of unprecedented beauty, utility, elegance and art.
Those works have also earned Africans themselves both opportunities and riches. For instance, the African Heritage Bands that he has supported and helped to build have often gone on to soaring heights. Members of his bands, like Job Seda, now known as Ayub Ogada, have written and performed music that’s featured in Hollywood films like The Constant Gardener. And his models have also moved on, some to stay abroad and cultivate careers out there.
The best example of that is the Somali model Iman who he first put on a catwalk having recognized her ineffable beauty. But she was readily whisked off to Europe where she rapidly forget to credit Donovan for helping her start off her career.
Currently, he’s been assisting a young musician and musical instrument maker, Martin Murimi, who reinvented himself with Donovan’s help as Papillon. The night of Alan’s 50th anniversary celebration was when Papillon launched his first album entitled ‘Heart of Africa.’
There are countless other artists that Alan Donovan has assisted. There have been refugee artists who he’s help get back on their feet, like John Odoch Ameny. He even helped one of Kenya’s most esteemed and widely recognized sculptors, Gakunju Kaigwa who’d wanted to intern with Odoch Ameny at AH Kisii stone workshop, which is where Gakunju learned (under Odoch) to work with that special soap stone.
Donovan’s role in publishing Joseph Murumbi’s autobiography is also large. Indeed, it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t taken the initiative to ensure Mr Murumbi’s legacy and historical contribution to Kenya does not die.
And having acquired the task from a former Managing Director of the National Museums of Kenya to manage the Nairobi Gallery, Donovan has given over most of the Gallery to creating permanent exhibitions of the Murumbi’s extensive collections of indigenous African jewellery, first edition books and stamps and other rare cultural artefacts. The rest of the Murumbi’s art collections are on permanent display at Kenya’s National Archives, thanks to Donovan’s tireless efforts.
But perhaps the least appreciated work that Donovan did on behalf of the Murumbi’s is to see that Joe’s wishes were fulfilling by ensuring that he and his wife Sheila were buried right near his best friend, Pio Gama Pinto.
African Heritage was also one of the few places in Nairobi that paid special attention to the 1985 United Nations International Decade on Women by bringing together outstanding women artists from all over the world to celebrate the Women’s Conference at African Heritage Gallery.
The women included the celebrated Kenyan woman ceramicist and O.B.E. Magdalene Odondo, Nigerian woman batik artist Nike Seven Seven Okundaye and Australian photographer Angela Fisher who with her American counterpart Carol Beckwith have created a whole series of beautiful photography books starting with ‘Africa Adorned’. It was Donovan who introduced these two women who have been prolific partners ever since.
But one of the most obvious reasons that Alan Donovan is not as well known locally as he is internationally is because the man himself is reserved by nature (some would say shy) and a workaholic who rarely has had time to promote himself other than by producing works that might or might not be attributed to his creativity and masterful design ideas.
Donovan was not able to attend his own 50th anniversary celebration, which was a big disappointment to many who had come to the event especially to congratulate him for his immense life work. But even before his ill became an issue, he had contacted the Obama Foundation and offered to gift his African Heritage House including all the art and artefacts contained therein to Barack and Michelle. He’s been informed via email and through the PA to the former American President (who’s got Kenyan blood running through his veins) that the Obamas would be delighted to accept his gift.
Whether they would ever actually come and live in the African Heritage House (which Donovan designed and constructed based on indigenous West African architectural designs) is subject to speculation. But certainly, if they settled here, they would elevate the global status of country. Their presence would probably even transform a commuter town like Mlolongo into a metropolis. But even if they only came visiting occasionally, their arrival would create scads of traffic jams but put Kenya in the world media limelight. It would also amplify the value of African culture and probably even contemporary Kenyan art.
So Kenyans will look forward to the Obamas’ arrival. We also look forward to Mr Donovan’s quick recovery since we’d like to let him know how much he is recognized by some as an international treasure who has blessed the country and giving Kenyans a more bountiful sense of their own beauty, creativity and capacity to make culture a central feature in the country’s creative economy.