Regular readers will have noticed that we have followed the story of Kenya’s African Heritage establishment from its early days, 40 years ago, as the first such organisation to take genuine African culture and fashions to the West, rather than the other way round, to now, its final fling, the Gala Night of the Century in Nairobi last month. The occasion, to celebrate the book African Twilight* by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, also provided the opportunity to showcase the best from around the continent.
Starting at twilight, the show opened with a presentation by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, with images from their life’s work shown on a giant screen in front of the vast expanse of the Nairobi National Park.
The sound of chanting was then heard from behind the giant screen. Bounding on to the stage, Samburu warriors and women took to the catwalk and stages for a memorial to their fallen comrade, the legendary musician Ayub Ogada, who was to perform that night but died during the preparations.
Images from the film The Constant Gardener, with Ayub playing his mournful, most famous song, ‘Koth Biro’, were shown before Papillon, a protégé of Ayub played his composition, ‘Ayubu’, an ode to Ayub, while Samburu women chanted, their necklaces clacking in rhythm to the music.
Dancer Fernando Anuang’a, with his troupe of Maasai who have danced with him at Espace Cardin in Paris, strode on to the stage as Rose, a model in a Maasai beaded dress, poured a libation of milk from a traditional calabash, and dancer Fernando performed sensuous moves to the music by Papillon.
Maasai and Samburu dancers entered the African Heritage House, its columns and arches bathed in red light, to take their position on the upper verandahs where they performed for the rest of the evening.
The African Heritage Herald in embroidered Ethiopian velvet trousers and silver jewellery opened the show with an ivory and embossed-silver horn from Guinea. Models in the royal textiles of Ghana appeared in flowing evening coats of hand-woven and hand- printed fabrics, woven and printed with calabash stamps and combs by Ashanti men.
They were escorted by male models draped in the royal cloths adorned with bronze and gold accessories. The show then moved swiftly with models wearing the gauzy embroidered Sharma cloth from Ethiopia which Alan Donovan, founder of African Heritage, used in his first design in 1971.
Masks, stilt-walkers and men in towering red feather headdresses displayed the vibrant and mysterious culture of Cameroon to the sound of thunderous war drums.
Nigeria then took over with models showing traditional textiles of Africa’s most populous country woven by both men – on narrow hand looms – or women on wide stationary looms, which brought prestige to both the weaver and the wearer, followed by the famous indigo-dyed Adire cloth.
This is created by painting cassava starch on fabrics with a palm frond or feather before dipping the cloth several times in the blue-black indigo dye and then chipping off the starch to obtain the light blue colour of the cloth. Men sometimes make zinc stencils for the designs – the only work by men on this fabric.
At this point, two Chiefs from Nigeria, Nike Seven Seven Okundaye who has devoted her life to reviving the traditional fabrics of the Yoruba and who now owns Nigeria’s largest art gallery, Nike Gallery in Lagos, and Muraina Oyelami, from whom Alan Donovan bought his first works of contemporary art from Nigeria in 1967, adorned Alan Donovan with chieftaincy regalia before presenting him with his official chieftaincy certificate along with an emblem of his new role as Chief Babalaje of Ido Osun for his work in promoting the arts of the continent.
Ambassador Hon. Amina Mohammed, Kenya’s new Minister of Sports, Heritage and Culture, and the evening’s chief guest, looked on during the ceremony.
Next came a pair of graceful dancers wearing lavishly embroidered costumes once used for the Gerewol ceremony – a male beauty contest in the Sahel and collected by Carol Beckwith, who also produced a book of her experiences.
The Congo was symbolised by the Kingdom of Kuba with models displaying cloths all woven from palm fibre using various techniques like embroidery, appliques, tie-dye, and pile cloths clipped like a piece of velvet. The Kuba King was accompanied by two Queens.
Then the famous Bokolonfini (commonly called ‘mud cloth’, as it is created using natural mud dyes from the bottom of lakes in Mali) was on display with masked dancers and stilt-walkers bobbing and weaving in raffia outfits under the weight of carved wooden antelope headdresses from the Bambara.
A series of outfits made from the rare textiles of the island country of Madagascar made their appearance with polished, hand-woven silk, textured raw silk evening coats, flannel garments and hats worn by men with fabrics of pineapple fibre and cotton rags woven with raffia.
Beaded garments from the Ndebele and the Zulu of South Africa were followed by the famous cotton Khanga, Kitenge and Kikoi textiles from Kenya.
Then the original trio of the sensational male dancers from Kenya, known as Rare Watts in the 1980s, appeared in Maasai dress, performing their original frenetic routine to the song Dirty Cash during the African Retro segment.
During a lull in the performances, Alan Donovan presented Kenyan fashion designer Sally Karago with an African Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award. Models wearing the bark cloth wedding gown studded with porcupine quills, with attendants in porcupine quill headdresses, paraded on stage – a collection that had won Sally the first Smirnoff Fashion Award in Africa in 1993. A new collection of her Turkana-inspired attire from Kenya was also shown.
Finally, three pairs of warriors in traditional attire from Sudan, Mali, Togo, Nigeria and Kenya, all bearing long spears, strode on to the stage and crossed their spears while models in Maasai, Kamba, Kikuyu and Dinka beadwork opened the spears and took their own positions on stage. This was followed by Maasai, Samburu and Fulani dancers, acrobats, stilt-walkers.
Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, Alan Donovan, MCs Naomi Cidi and Oscar Beautah, guest of honour Ambassador Amina Mohamed and sponsors from the hotels joined the performers on the stage. This was a spectacular, joyous celebration of Africa’s unique culture and creativity. NA
*African Twilight has now been made into a documentary with the world premiere in Nairobi at the Alliance Française auditorium on 6 May, with further showings planned in London, Germany, Los Angeles, New York and other venues.