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Kenya: Will ‘African Heritage’ recapture its glory days?

Arts & Culture

Kenya: Will ‘African Heritage’ recapture its glory days?

For decades until it closed in 2003, The African Heritage gallery in Nairobi – Kenya – showcased some of the best and most original designs made from traditional African textiles and materials. Its international tours introduced Africa’s unique creativity around the world. Now the founder, Alan Donovan, is pulling out the stops for one more journey into Africa’s forgotten but still glorious world of design. Anver Versi, reports.

Some years ago, New African magazine reported on The Rise and Fall of African Heritage. This article detailed the fortunes of a famous Kenyan gallery which had closed after a glorious period producing shows highlighting African culture, textiles and fashions through festivals that travelled the world with its troupe of models, musicians, acrobats, stilt walkers, chefs, hairdressers and others.

The last major tour of Kenya’s African Heritage Festival was in 1999-2000 and travelled across Kenya holding shows at 23 Kenyan Hotels heralding the African Millennium.

Central to the shows was the double volume opus, African Ceremonies by the intrepid photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, who signed hundreds of their books during the tour. Before that, African Heritage had traveled to South Africa to produce its African Renaissance show for 4,000 guests arriving for the First Telecoms Conference in Africa. 

The last European tour by African Heritage was to 11 cities with the troupe packed into a luxury bus, followed by a caravan of lorries loaded with plants, lighting and sound equipment, musical instruments, costumes and fashions, and hand painted murals to transform every venue into ‘Kenya’ with scenes depicting the  Kenya coast, mountains and  game parks. The tour was supported by   Lufthansa Airlines and the Hotel Intercontinental.

The tour was so successful and sparked such an interest in African culture and fashion that founder Alan Donovan was invited by the AU to give a lecture on his ‘recipe’ for the exciting package.

Now, l8 years since the African Millennium Tour, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have produced another double volume opus, African Twilight. This work concentrates on the vanishing African cultures, rituals and traditions not surveyed in their first 16 books.  Thus they have done what no photographers can do ever again – as most of these rituals and ceremonies are now extinct or vanishing and the only record of their existence, for future generations, will be the text and photographs in the double volume.

Inspired by the work and the long association he has had with the duo, Alan Donovan has come out of virtual retirement to reconstruct the African Heritage Festival one more time.

Donovan, has put together a dedicated team to recreat the glory days of African Heritage, which will premier next month.

Bygone era

It is perhaps fitting that a study on the vanishing cultural treasures of Africa should inspire the African Heritage show which in itself harks backs to a bygone era before ubiquitous cheap imports flattened out Africa’s unique creativity in textiles, ornaments, jewelry, and modes of dressing and deportment.

Fortunately, most of the more than 100 extraordinary costumes designed and made for the African Heritage tours, survive, packed away in a warehouse/workshop in Nairobi owned by Kenyan designer Makena Mwiraria.  Alan has contracted local tailors, embroiderers, artists skilled in using colourful beads as well as cleaners to revive the costumes and give them a fresh lease of life.

Donovan most fondly remembers the show in 1984 when he combed the continent to present the theme: Africa Adorned. Kenyan journalist Margaretta wa Gacheru recounted the show at the Hotel Intercontinental: “There was the  blend of feathers and fetishes and fabulous frocks made out of   mainly hand stitched, hand-woven or spun Pan African fabrics from Madagascar and Mali, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, Cameroon, Uganda, and the incredible hand embroidery from Ethiopia.”

It also brought fame to ‘Mr. Kenya’, muscle-man Mickey Ragos and ‘Miss Africa’, the beautiful Khadija Adam. Adam went straight from that show to the catwalks of Yves St. Laurent and became the trailblazer for a long line of African models were to dominate the fashion scene in Europe and the US

Donovan says: “It will be difficult to top that show as many of the most gorgeous textiles of Africa are also vanishing or no longer woven or worn due to massive imports from China and used clothing from the US. And because of the very labour intensive work required on these fabulous textiles which are one of the great gifts of Africa to the world”.

A pan-African dream

The African Heritage story started in 197l, just a year after Donavan’s arrival in Kenya when he had staged his first exhibition of artifacts from Northern Kenya. The event was attended by Kenya’s first Foreign Minister and Second Vice-President, Joseph Murumbi and the two linked up to dream of a Pan African Centre in Nairobi where artists, works and artifacts from all parts of the continent could be shared with local people and the many tourists who visit Kenya.  African Heritage was born and was a success from the beginning. 

In 197l Alan went on his first tour across the US showcasing African art, crafts , textiles and jewelry.  The tour was in heavy demand with showings at important galleries and department stores like Nieman Marcus, at Black Expo in Chicago, at the Egg and the Eye in Los Angeles and many locations along the way.

Part of the tour involved fashion shows of African costumes and fashions.  In New York, an entire city block was closed off for a street fashion show with the mayor as guest of honour and shops along the route showing African designs in their windows. 

Unfortunately not all the fashion items from Nairobi had arrived in time and Donovan was forced to contract a seamstress from the famed Lincoln City Opera who made elaborate costumes. “I opened my suitcases and pulled out the indigo dyed Adire cloth from Nigeria, the ornately embroidered Shema cloth from Ethiopia, the mud cloth from Mali, the sumptuous hand woven Kente cloth from Ghana and the luscious raw silk from Madagascar,” he recalls. 

They got to work and produced a small collection for the New York Street Festival with some models wrapped in the fabrics with large amber beads from Mali or strings of ostrich egg shell beads from Kenya as Alan did not want to cut into the beautiful fabrics. 

The other fashion items from Nairobi then arrived in time as the show traveled on to Denver and Chicago where Donvan was met by the African American activist, Reverend Jesse Jackson. There were daily shows at the cavernous Chicago amphitheater which was staging the Black Expo exhibition. The show then proceeded to California.

This was the start of a glorious period for African Heritage which produced hundreds of designs under Donovan’s direction – many of which will be shown at the African Twilight event at his African Heritage House on 3 March.  As part of the festivities, he will present an African Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Kenyan designer, Sally Karago.

Will this event signal a renaissance of Africa’s unique creativity in design and materials?

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Written by Anver Versi

Anver Versi is the award-winning former editor of African Business Magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in Accra, Ghana.

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