Half a century journeying through Africa's art culture

Saturday October 30 2021
Alan Donovan

Alan Donovan, author of An American in Africa. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


When the Covid-19 pandemic struck Kenya in March 2020, art connoisseur Alan Donovan found himself isolated in his home overlooking the Nairobi National Park. Confinement was the impetus to start writing his memoirs, An American in Africa: 50 Years Exploring African Heritage and Overcoming Racism in America.

Born in 1937, Donovan first came to Africa in 1967 as a USAid food relief officer in Nigeria during the Biafra civil war. It was the realisation of a lifelong dream, but happening against the unfolding horrors of a “forgotten war of Africa” that led to the deaths of an estimated two million people in two years.

It was in Nigeria that the seed of Donovan’s lifelong interest in African handicrafts was planted. He was exposed to a vibrant art scene, cultural ceremonies, traditional kingdoms, textiles, and ethnographic objects.

Disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the US government, Donovan resigned from his job in 1969, travelled to France to learn French then embarked on an extended tour of Africa in a Volkswagen minibus. Not long after arriving in Kenya in 1970, he journeyed to Lake Turkana in the Northern Frontier District at a time when you needed a permit to travel there because of security concerns.

Fascinated by Turkana designs and traditional objects, Donovan used funds from the sale of his vehicle to assemble a collection of cultural items, carefully recording their names and uses.

African Heritage


At the Nairobi exhibition of his Turkana collection in late 1970, the only African in attendance was Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president and a prolific collector of African art.

Together they established the which holds annual extravaganzas and global tours, stocking over 100 outlets worldwide.

At the start, every week, dealers would bring new items to the Gallery at a traders’ market that is the genesis of today’s Maasai markets in Nairobi. Having studied jewellery-making in Mombasa, Donovan’s designs pioneered many of the contemporary African adornments seen in Kenya today. Eventually he set up home in Kenya in 1989.

His uniquely designed house was inspired by the mud palaces and earthen homes he had seen in West Africa. Inside the house is an assortment of over 6,000 authentic African objects, paintings and artefacts.

An American in Africa is like a historical account of the art scene in yesteryears. Donovan recalls his exploits and near escapes while scouring for collectibles in remote places around Africa. He delves into the glittering fashion shows of the 70s and 80s, showcasing African attire that he designed. A host of film stars, foreign presidents and royalty patronised the Gallery. Murumbi is fondly eulogised for his immense contribution to the local arts and raising up of emerging artists.

Alan Donovan

An American in Africa, by Alan Donovan. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

Chapter 4, titled Black Lives Matter 2020, is one of the most intriguing in the book. When Donovan first came to Africa, America was in the throes of the civil rights movement. Fifty years later, racial turmoil rages in the form of "Black Lives Matter", a social movement arising from racially-motivated police brutality.

The race issue has always troubled Donovan since he awakened to racial segregation as a youth in the 1950s. His extended discourse on race relations and lacklustre leadership draw from manuscripts he penned 50 years ago about the heroes of the time. The likes of Malcom X, Dr Martin Luther King and president John F. Kennedy were, “cut down, their voices stilled by assassin’s bullets”, turning them into global heroes whose photos Donovan found pinned to walls of homes in Nigeria. He bemoans today’s scarcity of global leaders who can "rise to the level of hero" and inspire the youth.

Donovan’s journey has not been without challenges. He had to sell the Gallery in 2003 following a devastating downturn in business as terrorist attacks destroyed tourism. He almost lost his house to make way for the Standard Gauge Railway, and a brain infection in 2017 put him in coma for three weeks. He still hopes to secure the priceless Murumbi collection that lies in the basement of the Kenya National Archives.

Only Murumbi’s private collection surpasses his. Called the African Heritage House, Donovan’s home is said to be "the most photographed house in Africa".