Famous African Heritage House gifted to Obama for art museum

Sunday June 21 2020

Alan Donovan walks towards his African Heritage House in Mlolongo on February 13, 2014 after an interview. He says says the Obamas are likely to travel to Kenya in June 2018 PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

The American designer and architect of the African Heritage House, Alan Donovan, has offered to ‘gift’ his home (which doubles as a Pan-African art museum) to former US president Barack Obama Junior and his wife, Michelle.

Donovan told the Saturday Nation soon after his return from the US that he had thought long and hard about how to ensure the preservation of both his house and the African art and artifacts, textiles and jewellery in it. So when he heard that the Obamas were looking for an appropriate place to establish the Obama Library, he recalled the ‘dream’ that former Kenyan Vice President Joseph Murumbi had shared with him shortly before the two men co-founded the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery in 1972.

“Joe told me he’d dreamed of establishing a Pan-African research institute and gallery where artists from all around the region could come to exhibit as well as study, create and research the arts of Africa,” Donovan said.

The African Heritage House covers the gallery side of Murumbi’s dream, as it contains art and artifacts that Donovan collected while travelling around the region for AH Gallery. But if anyone could understand the need to establish a Pan-African art institution, it would be the former US president, also the first African-American to ascend to that high office.


So while he was recently in the US, Donovan travelled to Washington, DC, and met with members of the Obama Foundation, who, he said, told him that Obama would be delighted with Donovan’s ‘gift’.


“They said (Obama) had read everything he could find about African Heritage House and plans to come to Kenya with Michelle next June especially to see the house,” said Donovan, whose home has been described as “the most photographed house in Africa.”

The house, both the edifice and the interior, is unique as it reflects the past 50 years of Donovan’s life in Africa. He will officially be celebrating that half-century milestone from October 1, which coincidentally will be Nigeria’s National Day. On that day, he will not only launch his second Nigerian Festival — the first was in 1972 — an event anticipated to be a cultural extravaganza the kind for which African Heritage has historically been recognised for at home and abroad.

The occasion will also be used to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s renowned Oshogbo artists’ community, which was founded back in 1967 by the German Africanists, Ulli and Georgina Beier, and Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger, together with Nigerian artists like the late Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh and Nike Seven Seven Davies Okundaye, who at the time was Twins’ third wife.

Oshogbo has been recognised globally as one of the central seats of Nigerian and specifically Yoruba culture ever since then. It’s a place that has spawned not only visual artists but poets, playwrights, dancers, acrobats and Adire cloth quilt-makers.

Oshogbo is also where Nike has a workshop where artisans are busy reviving cultural traditions which were otherwise threatened by Western culturally homogenising trends that have destroyed so many other rich African traditions.

It is from her workshop as well as from her vast Centre for Arts and Culture in Lagos that Nike sent Donovan more than 100 works of art from Oshogbo artists, all of which will be on display during the festival. Other venues that will host the festival are the National Museums of Kenya, the Nairobi Gallery and Alliance Francaise.

Nike is expected in Nairobi for the opening festival and to give talks on Oshogbo and her own artistic work. Her batik art, which is largely inspired by Yoruba religion and folklore, have made her one of Africa’s most acclaimed female artists.

Also expected is one other Oshogbo artist, Jimoh Buraimoh, who took part in Donovan’s first Nigeria Festival. His art will be exhibited together with works by Twins Seven Seven, Bisi Fabumni, Jacob Afolabi, Folorunsha Olatunde and his late father, Asiru Olatunde, the late Rufus Ogundule, and, of course, Nike.

At the same time, another award-winning Nigerian artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, will also be present for the festival opening. Bruce is acclaimed for his print-making, painting and sculpture and has exhibited in such diverse venues as the Tate Modern in London and the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. He also took part in the 44th Venice Biennale and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos.

Donovan has kept in touch with all of these artists whose works he got to know while working for USAID in Biafra in the late 60s during the secessionist war that claimed over two million lives in three years.

Having studied African art and journalism at UCLA, Donovan played an unsung yet pioneering role in appreciating and promoting contemporary African art.

Joseph Murumbi recognised that talent back in 1969 when he first met Donovan, who was exhibiting his collection of Turkana material culture at the now defunct Studio Arts 68. Murumbi had left politics by that time and had become an avid African art collector.

He requested that Donovan return to northern Kenya where he had collected the Turkana artifacts that he had brought down to Nairobi for his first exhibition.

Murumbi sent him to collect a duplicate collection of the artifacts, knowing they would one day be precious and important works of indigenous Kenyan culture.

The bond between the two men grew from that point on, up until Murumbi’s death in 1990. However, their mutual appreciation and vision enabled them to expose the beauty of contemporary African art, of the kind that the Nairobi public will have the opportunity to see throughout October.

Donovan later wrote and published a book on Murumbi, A Path Not Taken, the story of Joseph Murumbi. The book was launched in Nairobi by Supreme Court Judge Mohammed Ibrahim in September 2015.