He was viewed as eccentric and crazy for putting black women in barkcloth and porcupine quill costumes on the catwalk when most agencies relied on European and Asian models in Western clothes, OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
The designer, Alan Donovan, had arrived in Kenya in 1970 and lived around Lake Turkana for three months while learning the art of Turkana women jewellery-making using beads and ostrich eggs. Donovan, a former employee of the United States Aid for International Development in Nigeria during the Biafran civil war had suddenly decided he did not want to be a bureaucrat. He resigned, went to learn French in France, bought a Volkswagen vehicle and drove it from France across the Sahara enroute to Uganda and Kenya.
As he had driven south on his job-free odyssey, he had acquired beads and other African artifacts and had vowed to build for himself a mud house in the fashion of the mosques of Mali. Little did he know that three decades later his effort would transform the face of pan-African fashion, culture, art, and design and set trends in textile designs, home accessories, handicrafts and music through African Heritage which he had formed with Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila in 1972. Murumbi, a noted arts connoisseur and collector, was a former foreign minister and vice-president of Kenya.
A native of Colorado who loved things African since childhood, Donovan holds three degrees in business administration, journalism and international relations with a focus on African studies from the University of California in Los Angeles. Besides African Heritage galleries, cafes, and festivals,Donovan is today the proud owner of an impressive two-storey turreted and columned edifice which is difficult to tell whether it is a castle, a fort or a museum.
Africa Heritage House, which rises from the plain like an outcropping of earth, stocks some of the world’s finest African handicrafts. On every wall, floor and ceiling inside the house is a rich collection of African textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry and art collected from across Africa. “Although I tried to use features from the various architectural forms that enchanted me in my travels around Africa,” Donovan says, “an equally important reason for my home is to show people how to live with African arts and crafts.
This artistic cultural heritage is underappreciated both in Africa and worldwide. My house is a step towards preservation.” He says Africa has so much resources that have not been explored or used in contemporary life. He adds that he wanted his house to be totally African from design, furniture and everything in it. “I want this house to be shown after my death so that the people who come here can see how to use African themes and decor in their own living rooms,” he says of the nine-room dwelling he is thinking of turning into a museum.
Granted, the walls of the house could not be made of mud but stone because Kenya’s wet climate could not favour the Sahelian architecture he had planned. The stone is nevertheless covered with layers of cement dyed from the first layer to look like mud. For permanence, the last coat of dyed cement was mixed with glue and Bondcrete