There’s a mini-museum of Pan-African art on semi-permanent display at the newly renovated Serena Hotel Nairobi.
It’s not billed as such, nor does it stand out like an institutional ‘tour de force’. Nor do many visitors to the Serena lobby even see what kind of treasure trove of Pan African art is there in public view since most people are preoccupied with their own personal affairs.
Yet if they took an interest, they’d see some of the artworks that intrigued early 20th century Western artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Those include the lost wax bronze sculptures of kings and queens from Benin and Ife in Nigeria.
Several of the kings are at the front entrance of the hotel where they can greet the guests. Others are in the three glass cases curated by Alan Donovan of the African Heritage House who collected most of the art treasures personally during his days as a co-director with the former Vice President of Kenya, the late Joseph Murumbi of the African Heritage Pan African Gallery, a art space that thrived from 1972 up to 2003.
It was during that time that Mr Donovan collected the solid gold weights, spoons (used to measure gold dust) and even the tiny gold boxes used to store the gold once it was bought and sold.
“That’s why the West African coastline was called the Gold Coast,” says Mr Donovan who had included an old photograph of men traditionally trading gold in a market place.
“Gold was the currency of that day. It was used [in the country now known as Ghana] to buy anything and everything, be it tomatoes and onions, fish or Royal Kente cloth,” he adds.
But if he collected what are now understood to be precious art, artefacts and textiles from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast during his Pan African ‘shopping sprees’, Mr Donovan recently discovered he could also obtain Royal bronze Leopards from behind the National Archives on DuBois Lane where West African traders now bring African art from their region to sell in Nairobi.
“Many of them are the sons of traders from whom I used to buy. When I stopped going to see their dads, they decided to come this way since they now knew there was a market here in Nairobi,” Donovan says.
Four of those bronze leopards are also in the Serena lobby. Two are seated gracefully on the floor beside pillars like dutiful sentinels. The other two stand majestically on mahogany tables on either side of the central meeting place in Serena’s lobby, where again they could be easily ignored.
Yet if one looks closely, he will see that all the bronze pieces were created using the lost wax technique, making each bronze a one-of-a-kind work of fine art.
The other spot where Donovan’s collectibles (which now belong to Serena) are situated is right across from the shop where books, jewellery and other touristic goodies to be found.
Unfortunately, the lighting isn’t exceptional and the artefacts are also inside glass cases. But here is where you will see several of the very first items that Mr Donovan collected in Kenya. They came from the Turkana, Borana, Gabbra, Rendille and even from the Kamba communities.
“There’s a case here where you can also see a collection of old pipes, snuff boxes and beer gourds, all of which come from Kenya,” he says as he stands in front of items that conjure distant memories in his mind.
In the shop’s store window there are several small contemporary lost wax bronze sculptures that are intricately made.
“I’m happy to see these lost wax bronzes because that means the technique is still being practiced,” he says.
“The problem is those sculptures were normally made for ceremonial occasions, but there are no more ceremonies so there is much less of a market for them.”
That is why he says he will mount an exhibition at the Nairobi Gallery early next year entitled ‘African Twilight’ which will celebrate the last remnants of African ceremonies as seen first-hand by photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith whose images will be the central feature of the exhibition.
The title of the show is also the title of their lovely new coffee table book which will be launched the same day and be on sale during the exhibition which will run for three month.