My long love affair with the African Heritage House

Standing on Kenya’s picturesque Athi Plains and overlooking the Nairobi National Park is the African Heritage House – boasting the title of “the most photographed house in Africa.” It was the first house in Africa to be featured in the prestigious US Architectural Digest in November 1996, to appear on the covers of Marie Claire in Paris, Spain and Italy editions, and to host a photo shoot for the St. John Collection for Sax Fifth Avenue in New York.

The African Heritage House is the home of Africa’s treasure and evidence of years of sweat and blood by Alan Donovan who has dedicated his life to collecting, promoting and preserving art from Africa. His House has a striking resemblance to the mud mosques in Timbuktu and the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali which he saw on his first Pan African journey across Africa in a VW bus in 1969.

Alan Donova

Donovan is an art collector, designer extraordinaire, and the proprietor of the African Heritage House. Forty years ago, together with the late Joseph Murumbi (Kenya’s second vice-president) and Murumbi’s wife Sheila, they co-founded African Heritage, Africa’s first Pan African Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. According to a World Bank report, African Heritage became “the largest most organized retail and wholesale operation of its kind in Africa,” and a major source of African art and crafts from Africa to the rest of the world. At its heyday, it had 51 outlets selling African Heritage items on all continents of the world.

Donovan is famous for staging festivals through a cultural outreach program called “Kenya’s African Heritage Festival,” an extravaganza that went around the world showcasing Africa’s rich art and culture. Many of the models in the shows wore jewellery designed by Donovan and went on to become stars in their own right, like Iman, the most famous model to come out of Africa, and Khadija who was fashion maestro Yves St. Laurent’s first star model from Africa.

His jewellery was created from African materials and components, many with old beads both from Africa and the African European trade, and original beads and works of art made by African artists or craftsmen. The designs are based on African motifs and themes. Although Donovan no longer creates any jewellery, he designed five lines of jewellery while at African Heritage. Much of the jewellery now sold in small shops and kiosks in Africa and around the world originated from African Heritage Jewellery designs. Donovan was also the Chief Designer and creator of jewellery and accessories to the famous Banana Republic Stores in the USA supplying jewellery over l00 Banana Republic stores in the USA and Europe under the “Global Jewellery” brand. For this line, he opened additional jewellery workshops in India, Bali and other countries.

Years of collection

Donovan has collected artefacts, masks, paintings, textiles, ornaments, and sculptures for the last four and a half decades. He came to Africa in 1967 as a food relief officer for the US State Department during the Nigerian -Biafra war, (Biafra was the former breakaway Eastern region of Nigeria). In the midst of war, death, and suffering, Donovan fell in love with Africa’s art and culture. Once when asked by a journalist what he had come to do in Africa, he said he came to find the “masters”,  those unnamed geniuses who produced the masks, sculptures, and textiles of Africa…” He says his quest in looking for the “masters” has always been rewarding.

Donovan’s African Heritage House is located about 35km from Nairobi City. A visit to the House is strictly by appointment. The House is open to the public; including school and university students, local and international tourists. Donovan gives a personal tour of his three-storey house (with a fourth-floor lookout and terrace overlooking the park) which takes at least one hour.

The African Heritage House in many ways is a story of Donovan’s life and time spent in various parts of Africa. The design of the house was inspired by the mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, Emir’s houses and palaces in Nigeria, and Ghana’s mud houses of Navrongo. The latter are round or rectangular mud houses painted in geometric designs of ochre, brown and ivory hues. These features can be seen in the exterior of the house. Before commencing construction, Donovan also visited the magnificent mud palaces in Morocco and learnt how the Moroccan builders make mud bricks with straw and mud. However, Donovan opted to build the house using stone blocks covered with dyed plaster.

It is in this House that Donovan has kept priceless collections from his tours around Africa. He is perhaps among the few people on the planet who have a prized collection of  items like ceremonial daggers from Nigeria, Turkana headdresses made of  ancestral human hair, Bapende masquerade dolls from Zaire, Kente cloth worn by the Ashanti royalty – the most famous, elegant cloth of Africa, noted for its marvellous combination of colours, cast brass gold weights for weighing gold from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Kenya’s Kamba beadwork, necklaces from Egypt made of rare quartzite clay,  called “Faience”, beaded items  worn by a Shango  Priest in Nigeria, and Ibeji dolls made by the Yoruba women who have a very  high incidence of multiple births. The children of multiple births (Ibedji), were thought to share one soul. If one of these children died at birth, the mother would carve a wooden effigy for the dead child (or if she could afford it, she would ask a carver well known for Ibeji effigies to  carve one for her)  The mother would  “feed”  the doll-like the living child, thus rubbing its nose off after multiple “feedings”. Because of their great numbers and unique history, Ibeji dolls have become one of the most popular pieces of African art collected today with some private collectors boasting several dozen of them in single or in multiple forms. Since they are so plentiful, only the most skilfully-carved and decorated (sometimes with cowrie shells or beaded costumes) fetch more than US$1,000. However, a very beautiful specimen may easily sell for US$ 10,000.

Works by Africa’s great artists

Donovan also has a large collection by some of Africa’s great artists. At the poolside is a six- foot wooden piece called “Three in One” by East Africa’s pioneer sculptor, Francis Nnaggenda. Joseph Murumbi celebrated Nnaggenda in his opening speech for African Heritage on Kenyatta Avenue (where I&M Tower stands today), besieging the then Mayor of Nairobi Margaret Kenyatta and the Nairobi City Council to buy Nnaggenda’s mammoth works for public places. Murumbi said; “I own five of this man’s works and I am the only African that ever bought a piece from him.

Otherwise, he said, Africans should not get upset if their artists and art leave Africa.” But these words fell on deaf ears and Nnaggenda went into exile (in Texas USA) for some decades before returning to be Chairman of Fine Arts at Makerere University in Kampala. One of Nnaggenda’s towering metal sculptures called “Woman at the Gate” stands sentry at the Murumbi grave site in Nairobi City Park.  Thieves in search of scrap metal for the burgeoning scrap metal trade to China have tried to dislodge the mammoth sculpture of its stone plinth, succeeding in prying it off its perch only a few weeks ago, not knowing that the sculpture could fetch several million shillings if it were kept intact rather than a few thousand shillings in proceeds for scrap metal. Nnaggenda sculptures are very rare now because the artist is quite old and there is only a limited number available, thus his pieces will always increase in value. Some of his monumental works can sell for well over US$50,000.

Other works on display at Donovan’s house is a piece by John Odoch Ameny called Mass Communications, a series created from the debris of the technological age which the artist started in l980 which now includes old mobile phones. “We collected 2,000 used and spoilt phones donated by Safaricom to make this piece,” explains Donovan.

Donovan also owns a magnificent collection of “Tinga Tinga” art by disciples of the late Edward Saidi, a Makonde artist. The original paintings by Edward Saidi can sell for up to $20,000 to $30,000 and are especially sought after by Japanese collectors.  There is also a painting by a Haitian artist who “liked to paint animals,” says Donovan. Inside the House, Donovan has pottery by Magdalene Odundo who is based in London. “Odundo is Kenya’s most famous artist abroad but little known in Kenya,” he explains. She takes at least one month to make a pot (or “vessel” as she prefers to call her works) so they are limited in number with many customers on her waiting list. Magdalene is very much in demand as an artist- in- residence and to give and lectures all over the world. Her works can fetch over USD$50,000 a piece and are given special prominence in the British Museum and many other leading museums of the world where they are usually displayed on their own as they are difficult to catalogue as either traditional or contemporary.

There is also an amazing painting by Twin Seven Seven, a West African artist who was one of seven sets of twins born to his mother; all the babies but him died at birth. Seven Seven died a few years ago; he was a phenomenal artist, musician, and dancer.  His works started to attract international attention at galleries in Europe and the US only recently.   Since his death, prices of his works are among the top tier for contemporary African artists i.e. those which break US$100,000. His former wife Nike Seven Seven (who had seven exhibitions at Nairobi’s African Heritage) also sells works for around US$40,000. Other works in the house are paintings by Charles Sekano, a jazz musician/artist from South Africa who lived in Nairobi and Ancet Soi, a pioneer artist of Kenya who won a calendar award in the 1960s. His works are highly sought after and may sell for several thousand US dollars, along with the flamboyant works of Jak Katarikawe, a well-known Ugandan artist living in Nairobi.

Prejudice for African art

For a long time, artefacts, masks, jewellery and textiles from Africa have not been accepted as art but Donovan has helped to change all that. He says a sturdy prejudice exists from the “West” when it comes to African objects which are not there when discussing objects from other parts of the world.  In his book My Journey through African Heritage, Donovan writes; “If the object has not been seen in a museum or a book on African art, then it is not “African”, regardless of who created it. Besides, if the object is not something to hang on the wall or adorn one’s table, it cannot be “art”,” he writes.

After living amongst the Turkana in northern Kenya, Donovan wanted to exhibit their items as “art” but when he tried to exhibit his collection in American galleries in 1970, (after successful showings in Nairobi), he was told that they were “artefacts,” “ utensils” or “functional” items. “The Turkana do not need paintings on their walls or their donkeys. Their instincts and talents in producing their phenomenal designs are clearly art. Period. Why would I want to pay three million US dollars for a painting of a Campbell’s soup can, a ‘functional’ item reproduced by American artist Andy Warhol? This artefact may have been characteristic or pivotal in a period of Western consumerism, but is it art?” poses Donovan.

Donovan also has the same problems when trying to exhibit collections of rare old textiles from the Bakuba of the Congo, (which can still be found readily in Nairobi or South African galleries and craft markets). He points out that these textiles had an enormous impact on so-called “modern art” in the early decades of the last century and that they should be protected as a “world heritage”. Picasso was known to have had huge collections of Kuba textiles and Matisse’s appliqués which are said to be influenced by Kuba cloths. Matisse exhibited his collection of Kuba cloths at the New York Museum of Modern Art in l938, a first for that kind of work.  “Why would I want to spend millions on a Matisse appliqué when I know it was largely inspired by Bakuba palm fibre tapestries from the Congo? The tapestries are far more lively and beautiful than a flat canvas. Besides you can still buy a fine example of Kuba cloth in Nairobi for a few hundred dollars!  Why not go to the masters!” (those African artists who are still not recognized for their great impact on abstract and “modern” art)” asks Donovan.

Another issue that upsets Donovan is galleries and shops selling African art that refuse to show masks and sculptures that are not “originals”. These so-called “copies” may even be carved by master carvers who have spent their lives carving the very same masks for ceremonies but unless it has been “danced” (used in ceremonies) it may be considered unworthy. Donovan says this is a problem that can be solved simply by correct labelling.  “ I never sold art at African Heritage without a label giving its age and where the carver/maker came from, for instance, if an Ashanti doll from Ghana was carved by a Kamba carver in Kenya, this was made clear on the label.  However, I tried to seek out carvers from their own cultures.  If their culture no longer used such items for ceremonies, what were these carvers to do?  Stop working?”

Money is art

Is there money in collecting and selling African art? I ask. After a few seconds of silence, Donovan says yes but adds a disclaimer about the types of art on demand. “The value of many art pieces is based on its originality and age and some of the things being sold now are not original,” he cautions. The business of art is a thriving business in Africa. For example, an African Grebo female mask from Liberia cost USD 149, a 25″ H X 27″ W framed Kuba clothe from Congo sells for anywhere from US $100 to USD $1500,  a Bamileke Stool from Cameroon is worth USD1,500, and a storage chest from Zanzibar can sell from  USD4,000 or more depending on age,  beauty size and condition.

Donovan reiterates that art is indeed a viable business in Africa. “Investment is not as important as expertise. It is the affinity for the cultures and materials; investment depends on the intended outlets, i.e. a huge chain of department stores or one exclusive gallery, etc.

For people intending to invest in the business, Donovan cautions that it is better not to go into collecting as a business but as a passion.

On whether are any law on collecting masks, carvings etc, Donovan says most of the old masks and statues are now in museums or private collections around the world and few remain in Africa, so what are available is now becoming computerized. “There are laws in some countries to prevent old pieces from being exported, and in Kenya, Joseph Murumbi was instrumental for passing a law (while he was Chairman of the Kenya National Archives) so that collections like his own would have to be vetted by the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya before they could be exported, which ironically saved his collection from being sent out of the country,” explains Donovan.

Murumbi’s first collection of Pan African art and several thousand rare books on Africa published before 1900 was sold to the Kenya National Archives in l976, along with his much-adored house in Muthaiga, which was to have been made the Murumbi Institute of African Studies. However, the house was allowed to deteriorate and was eventually torn down and the property disposed of to other parties. This collection was at last displayed properly on two floors of the Kenya National Archives, in the Murumbi Galleries in 2006.  Part of the collections left behind by Sheila Murumbi is also on temporary display including the Murumbi Pan African postage stamp collection which is said to be next to the Queen of England’s in importance. The rest of the containers finally released from storage after a long legal tussle to export them are now in storage at the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya still awaiting a permanent resting place.

The future of the African Heritage house

What will become of Donovan’s outstanding collection of art, crafts, textiles, and artefacts drawn from all parts of the African continent and displayed with care in a house based on the vanishing mud architecture of Africa?  Donovan seems puzzled. He discloses to me that he is in negotiations with several foundations and organizations and is also speaking to other private investors about plans to add suites and a hotel on the same or nearby property based on African traditional architecture.

What lessons has Donovan learnt as an art collector? “Sadly, many items in my house have disappeared and others will soon follow. As local demand for traditional items dries up, artists and craftspeople are forced to seek out new markets. Africans have embraced new religions and modern ways, their traditions have changed, some have vanished and we may lose in less than half a century what took ancient cultures millennia to create,” explains Donovan adding that his House shows Africans, as well as visitors from abroad, how to live with African art and crafts which hopefully is a step toward preservation. “If you are interested in your heritage, you should collect it, cherish it, as much of it is being lost as we speak and in some cases even before we knew it existed.” As for the house, he hopes it will remain permanently and majestically intact as a museum for future generations.


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