Alan Donovan: My Journey Through African Art and Culture

African Heritage House

Alan Donovan and the African Heritage House

Alan Donovan and the African Heritage House
Alan Donovan is the co-founder of African Heritage, the continent’s first pan-African gallery in Nairobi which became a pioneering craft retail and wholesale operation. He constructed the African Heritage House, inspired by the pre-colonial architecture of Africa, including the  Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali and and the Swahili houses of Coastal East Africa – which he encountered during his travels across the continent. He has organised and curated exhibitions all around the world showcasing Africa’s rich cultural legacy for over four decades. This photo of the African Heritage House was taken by Deidi von Schaewen.

This is a room in the African Heritage House, decorated with Kuba and Bokolanfini cloth. Photo by Deidi von Schaewen.

This is the African Heritage living room, with Fulani blankets adorning the walls. Photo by Tim Beddow.

This is the African Heritage pool house. Photo by Deidi von Schaewen

The African Heritage House boasts a swimming pool where one can experience the stunning views of the Nairobi National Park.

1967: The beginning
Alan Donovan came to Africa on July 4 1967 as a relief officer with the US State Deparment during the Nigerian-Biafra war. He resigned his post in 1969, bought a Volkswagen bus in Paris, and travelled through the Sahara Desert to Nigeria and then across the Congo to Kenya. Here he is on a fish lorry in Turkana, Kenya, in 1970.

Alan Donovan with Oshogbo artists in Nigeria.

This is a photograph taken by Alan Donovan of the Oshogbo King in Nigeria.

Alan Donovan also designed the Snoopy and Belle costumes for the Snoopy and Belle Museum in Paris

1972-2003: African Heritage Ltd
African Heritage Ltd, Africa’s first Pan African Gallery, was founded by Alan Donovan and Mr. Joseph Murumbi (the former vice-president of Kenya) and his wife, Sheila. They chose the “Nimba” mask from Guinea as the company's logo, displayed on all its shopping bags, receipts and letter heads. African Heritage became the largest exporter of arts and crafts from Africa to the rest of the world for several decades.

Alan Donovan produced Kenya's African Heritage Festival with a troupe of models, dancers, musicians, acrobats and others. Here he explains the history of African Heritage and his life story.

Alan Donovan produced a video of his festivals called African Heritage on the Road funded by Coca-Cola East and Southern Africa.

Pan African Festivals
Alan Donovan organized Pan African Festivals, the first one being the Madagascar Music & Arts Festival in 1971 followed by the Nigerian Festival in 1972. He also organized the largest street festival ever held in Nairobi for the city’s centennial celebrations in 1997, and a few years later, a tour of 23 Kenyan hotels to bring in the Millenium.

1978: Kenya Trade Fair
Ths is a poster of the Kenya Trade Fair in the USA organized in New York City by African Heritage.

The African Heritage Band emerged from Kenya's African Heritage Festival along with many other African musical groups. Here they are in 1983 attending the premiere of the film "Out of Africa", arriving in antique cars.

First African Renaissance Show 1998 in South Africa

The African Renaissance Show was staged in South Africa for the First African Telecoms Conference in May 1998, sponsored by the South African government and the International Telecommunications Union. The show combined music and dance groups from South Africa.

African Renaissance Show, part 1

African Renaissance Show, part 2

The organisers had surveyed the whole of Africa to find the best cultural show and unanimously agreed that Kenya’s African Heritage Festival was the best on the continent.

African Heritage Jewelry
Alan Donovan also created the African Heritage jewelry collection from ancient beads and components from all parts of Africa. The innovative Global Jewellery was sold exclusively through the original Banana Republic stores in the USA. 
Lifetime Achievements
Alan Donovan has been recognised for his work in preserving African heritage and culture and is the recipient of several awards. 

Alan Donovan with models in Bukuba textiles at African Heritage 40th anniversary celebrations.

Prince Kwete Kwete of the Kingdom of Kuba was the guest of honor.

Margaret Kenyatta, former Mayor of Nairobi, presents a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pan African Broadcasting, Heritage and Achievement Awards in South Africa, for “Thirty Years of Visionary Leadership in the Arts” and “The best gallery in Africa, African Heritage” during the African Heritage 30th Anniversary Celebrations in 2002. Looking on is Jerry Okungu, the local organizer for the awards.

Naomi Cedi, the then Director of Kenya Culture Center, presents the Africa Handmade Lifetime Achievement Award to Alan Donovan in 2015.

Alan Donovan holding the Fashionweek Award between the directors of Kenya Fashionweek, Athman Ngau and Galina Tatarinova in 2016.

2003-present day
Alan Donovan is still involved with African Heritage to date.

2003: Murumbi Legacy

AFTER African Heritage closed in 2003, Alan formed the Murumbi Trust with several friends of the Murumbis. Under his direction, the Trust rehabilitated, repaired and displayed the Murumbi legacy at The Murumbi Gallery in the Kenya National Archives, The Nairobi Gallery at the old PC’s office in Nairobi's City centre, and a sculpture garden at the Murumbi Peace Memorial in Nairobi City Park. In 2015, Alan released “A Path Not Taken, the Story of Joseph Murumbi”, based on Murumbi’s own transcripts.

This is Papillon a young Kenyan musician mentored by Alan Donovan. Papillon makes his own instruments. Here he is after a concert at the African Heritage House. Photo by Helene Wilkstrom and Lena Ulgenes

Papillon hopes to follow in the footsteps of Ayub Ogada, Kenya's most famous international musician who founded the African Heritage Band in 1979 with Alan Donovan. Photo by Helene Wilkstrom and Lena Ulgenes

Alan Donovan continues to preserve and promote the incredible history of Africa in the African Heritage House.

Alan Donovan has also published a book: My Journey Through African Heritage which documents over 4 decades of Alan’s life and experiences in Africa. The book's cover is made out of genuine bark cloth from Buganda. A soft cover edition has been released in 2017.

Credits: Story

Curated by:
Magunga Williams; writer and blogger []
Martin K. Maitha; writer []

Photography by:
Kabutha Kago []
Alan Donovan []

Associated Manager:
Fred Kithinzi of Belva Digital []

Credits: All media
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