Early days in Africa
Alan Donovan arrived in Africa on July 4, 1967. He was employed with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a food relief officer in Nigeria during the Nigeria-Biafra War.
Turkana Functional Art from African Arts Magazine. Click image to open/download pdf.
In 1969, he quit his job, bought a VW bus in Paris, and commenced a trans-Africa odyssey across Africa, crossing the Sahara Desert to Nigeria , arriving just as the war ended. He then continued on his journey across the Congo to Kenya, arriving in Nairobi in March 1970. There he acquired a permit to travel to the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (a permit was necessary as the “NFD” was considered very dangerous in those days). He travelled the far northern part of Kenya, spending several months around Lake Turkana among the Turkana people.
He decided to sell his Volkswagen bus and used the money to collect art and material culture from the Turkana and some of the neighbouring tribes in the far North of Kenya. Returning to Nairobi, friends at the US Embassy encouraged him to hold an exhibition of his collections, which opened in October 1970.
The only African who attended the exhibition was Joseph Murumbi, Africa’s foremost collector of African cultural artifacts and the country’s first Foreign Minister and its Second Vice President. Murumbi was so impressed with the collection, that he asked Alan to go back to Turkana and make a similar collection for him. While Alan was on his second journey to northern Kenya, he immersed himself in the arts of the Turkana. He was especially fascinated by their personal adornment, such as the earrings made from hammered brass wire or melted down from aluminum cooking pots (“sufurias”) which they incised with a hot nail, or beads chipped out of the thick shell of an ostrich egg, the full sets of crocodile teeth acquired during night time Turkana crocodile hunts, among other treasures.
Having acquired a considerable number of items, he decided he must learn to make jewellery to incorporate all of these ornaments. He then travelled down to the coastal city of Mombasa where he joined a workshop that had been set up by an American Peace Corps volunteer from South Carolina who was to teach jewellery making as a livelihood to Kenyans who had been traumatized in serious accidents or fires. He brought with him small items of adornment that from Ghana, Nigeria and other countries and combined these elements with the items from Northern Kenya in his jewellery designs.
October 8-16 1970. These were the dates that changed my life forever, when I held my first exhibition of artifacts from the Turkana and other Northern Kenya peoples in Nairobi. Joseph Murumbi was the only African to attend and he asked me to go back to Turkana to make a collection for him. During that time I went on crocodile hunts with the Turkana, made earrings and other ornaments from melted down sufrias (cooking pots). I took the crocodile teeth and all the other items down to Mombasa (along with ornaments from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and other countries), which was the genesis of African Heritage Jewellery and later the formation of African Heritage with Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila.
One day, a woman walked in to the workshop and was extremely excited by his jewellery. She was Erroll Trebinsky who was writing a book (“Silence will Speak”) about Dennis Fitch-Hatton, the lover of Karen Blixen, Kenya’s most famous settler of “Out of Africa” fame. Erroll convinced Alan to go to Nairobi to exhibit his jewellery.
African Heritage Jewellery
The original African Heritage Jewellery brochure
The day of the opening, a wealthy Texas oil man walked in to the gallery and started pulling the jewellery off the display boards. Alan told him to come back at 6 pm when the exhibition was to open. “But I want ‘em all”, the man exclaimed, “plus the boards, the walls and this room!”. The Texan bought all the jewellery that Alan would sell and took them on a tour through leading galleries of the United States, including Berdorf Goodman’s and Nieman-Marcus. He then set up a business called “Dr Livingston I Presume” and urged Alan to start exporting his jewellery from Kenya. Alan then rented an old horse stables in Nairobi and, together with several local craftspeople he had met, started producing “African Heritage Jewellery”.
His old friend, Joseph Murumbi walked in one day, clearly agitated. He explained that he had seen a large helmet mask from Guinea (called a “Nimba”) in the show window of a local shop owned by an Indian trader, who told him he had bought the mask from Alan Donovan. “Now, why did you sell that to him?,” he inquired. “You knew I would want it and you knew me first!” So he and Alan visited the shop, the shopkeeper returned Alan’s money, and Alan sold the “Nimba” to Murumbi.
On that day, Murumbi confessed it was his dream to set up a Pan African Art Centre in Nairobi where artists from all parts of continent could show and sell their works to tourists and local people. He asked Alan if he would stay and help him realize his dream. Thus the company African Heritage was born and the “Nimba” became one of the country’s most famous logos, 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.
Years after African Heritage was formed, the owners of a large department store chain in America asked Alan to set up l00 shops selling jewellery and accessories of his design. The Banana Republic was a dynamic and innovative leader noted for its unique “theatrical merchandising”. The Banana Republic found premises in an old super market in San Francisco for the first such shop for what was to be called “Endangered Art”. They asked Alan to set up additional workshops in India and Bali, for what was marketed as “Global Jewellery”. However these plans were never fully realized as the original owners sold the business and eventually left. After producing several hundred thousand items for Banana Republic from his global jewellery workshops, Alan also resigned. He returned to Kenya where he exported his jewellery designs to customers around the world until he closed African Heritage in 2003. His original designs are still being produced in Nairobi by one of his former jewellery workers, Raymond Nyamodi.