Gains, losses in decades blend of African, Western cultures

Alan Donovan with Sally Karago
Alan Donovan with Sally Karago (in black) who Alan awarded the African Heritage Lifetime Achievement award for fashion design. PHOTO | COURTESY 

It was a gala like no other, an evening dedicated to the Kenyan premiere of the double-barrelled book, African Twilight: Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies, that had taken veteran photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher 14 years to complete.

Their seventeenth book is clearly a labour of love blended with a splendid taste for adventure and an acute eye for the boundless beauty of indigenous African cultures.

It’s also their magnum opus out of all the beautiful Afro-centric books they’ve produced since their meeting in 1978 right here in Nairobi.

But the night was also the grand finale of one man’s lifelong career of creating a multifaceted fusion that blended the best of African cultures with the keenest sense of Western styles, tastes, trends and consumer appetites for elegant exotica; be it fashion, jewellery or handicraft.

Alan Donovan came to Africa more than 50 years ago. He’s been in Kenya since 1970 when he met and formed a life-long partnership with Kenya’s second vice-president, Joseph Murumbi, that produced the African Heritage Pan African Gallery.


Donovan has achieved a lot over the past 50-plus years.

Nonetheless, he was determined to make the gala his own ‘African twilight’ by presenting (for what he claims is ‘the very last time’) the sort of spectacular showcase of African fashion, textiles, jewellery, music and vibrant movement that he’d shown all over Europe in the ‘80s and South Africa in the ‘90s when his ‘African Renaissance’ extravaganza was selected the most magnificent production of Pan-African culture found anywhere on the continent.

African Heritage Gallery

To do this, Donovan invited back many of the models, musicians, master carvers and fashion designers with whom he’d worked up until African Heritage Gallery went into receivership in the early 2000s. He even called back from Paris Fernando Anuang’a, formerly with the award-winning group Rare Watts, to dance with his current team of Maasai.

He brought back his stilt-walker, agile acrobats and his traditional horn-blower, the guy mandated to announce the evening’s entertainment was about to begin.

The horn-blower’s timing was a wee bit off since the evening had actually kicked off with a fabulous raffle featuring two Qatar airline tickets to anywhere in the world.

The evening’s guest of honour, Kenya’s new Culture Cabinet Secretary, Amina Mohamed, was the one invited to pick the winners out of a kiondo, one of whom was Dr Suki Mwendwa.

After that, Amina gave a rousing and hopeful speech, applauding Donovan for all he has done for culture in Kenya and around the region.

She promised to support Kenyan artists since she might be the first Culture minister who understands how critical a role culture plays in the development of a healthy society.

After Amina, it was Carol and Angela’s turn to tell the back story of ‘African Twilight’. They had the full attention of an audience that had come to the African Heritage House for both a good time and out of respect for these two adventurous women who’d spent the last 40 years trekking around the region by all means of transport to reach a multitude of little-known corners of the continent where ancient rituals and ceremonies were still being practiced.

Western modernity

Their message, however, was chilling. For they were able to testify that nearly half the cultural events that they had witnessed decades ago were now gone, vanished in the sweeping tides and trends of Western modernity.

In fact, one key incentive for doing African Twilight is they cared to record those amazing customs and ceremonies before they were extinct.

Their having done so is one reason the book is something one would want to have for the record.

After their videos and lively stories came, Donovan’s exquisite fashions, all set to the live music of Papillon, the latest band he’s helped to form featuring Martin Murimi aka Papillon on nyatiti (the Luo’s eight-stringed music instrument) Paul Shimudi on guitar and keyboard, Pradash Velankaaar on tabla and Kerit Pattni on bamboo flute.

Their accompaniment was beautiful as were the fashions, all made with indigenous fabrics collected from countries Donovan had visited as a buyer for African Heritage over the years.

The music had the eerie quality of conjuring up the spirit and sound of the late nyatiti player Ayub Ogada who was meant to perform at the gala but passed on last month.