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Hurry up and visit the African Heritage House before it’s closed

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Alan Donovan, inset, built the must-visit African Heritage House five years ago. Photo/FILE

Alan Donovan, inset, built the must-visit African Heritage House five years ago. Photo/FILE 

By ERIC MUGENDI

Posted  Friday, June 6   2014 at  13:43

In Summary

  • The African Heritage House, the ‘most photographed house in Africa,’ could soon be demolished to make way for the standard gauge railway, one reason why it remains a must-visit site on the Nairobi circuit of the Tembea Kenya tourism initiative.

Twenty-five kilometres from Nairobi, near Mlolongo on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, stands the African Heritage House, the “most photographed house in Africa.”

At a time the country is on a marketing drive, urging citizens to tour Kenya under the Tembea Kenya initiative and in defiance of travel advisories and terror threats, this architectural wonder ranks high among sites to be visited on the Nairobi circuit such as the Nairobi National Park, the Animal Orphanage, Giraffe Centre, Snake Park, the National Museum and the National Archives.

The house stands on a slope near the Nairobi National Park, with the Kenya-Uganda Railway as the boundary, beyond which can be seen zebras and assorted wildlife. The Ngong Hills are also visible in the distance.

The house is open for guided tours that are conducted by Alan Donovan. He is visibly frail but clear as he recalls how he acquired the various art pieces, including standouts such as the extensive and beautiful jewellery collection displayed in glass cases around the house.

Built over five years by Donovan, the house’s four floors are packed from floor to ceiling with African art. The house itself is modelled on the mud architecture exemplified by the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, with natural ventilation that makes the interior significantly cooler than the exterior.

The doors to the various rooms are ornate pieces from Lamu, whose brass latches are still shiny despite being over 100 years old. The house incorporates several features of traditional African architecture – an interior courtyard and indoor gardens typical of Moroccan houses, painted walls reminiscent of the Kasena people in northern Ghana, and Swahili furniture from the East African coast.

Donovan is particularly interested in African fabrics, going by the different themes in these rooms. One guest bedroom has a silk kente cloth spread, which is a patchwork of small woven pieces of cloth made by Ghanaian men on small looms.

Another, the Bakuba Room, is dominated by the mud cloth of the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was said to have inspired modern artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Yet another room features kikoi fabric drapes, alongside bronze “house animals” from Benin and a traditional four-poster bed from Zanzibar. These eclectic combination gives an interesting feel to the house, with the objects blending together despite their varied origins.

On display in and around the house are extensive sculptures by artists who were in residence at one time at the African Heritage House, and went on to become prominent artists in their own right.

The pool house is decorated with wooden sculptures by Ugandan sculptor John Edward Odoch-Ameny and sketches and paintings by Francis Nnaggenda. The traditional pottery turned into modern art by Magdalene Odundo gets pride of place alongside coffee table books by award-winning photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith that feature photographs of disappearing African cultures.

Additional works by Expedito Mwebe and Elkana Ong’esa, whose sculptures can also be found at the Nairobi City Park’s Murumbi Memorial, are scattered around the compound.

The house features the beadwork of different communities such as the Kamba. Several objects of art in the house are functional pieces such as a camel stomach-turned-cooking-fat container from the Turkana. Also on display are large gourds used to hold traditional brew that was used as a dowry payment among the Kamba. These gourds are decorated with concentric circles that represent Mount Kilimanjaro, where the Kamba believe the spirits of their ancestors reside.

Through the African Heritage House, African art and culture has gained international exposure. Kenyan musicians of note, such as Idi Achieng and Ayub Ogada sang and toured as members of the African Heritage Band.

Through the house, Bloomingdale’s, the American retailer, acquired a number of locally made sapling chairs painted in an unusual black and white guinea fowl pattern.

The house itself has provided a backdrop for photo shoots in various fashion and design magazines, which Donovan has fastidiously collected and kept on display. Additionally, he has a folio dedicated to the career of Iman, a supermodel whose career started with showcasing African Heritage designs.

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