An American's Struggle to Save African Art from Developers

Collection with 19 media items created by Antonella Palmieri

30 Nov 2014 23:00

In Kenya, there is a bitter struggle between Chinese development investments and an American citizen eager to protect a famous house on the edge of the Kenyan savannah dedicated to preserving African heritage. The house has appeared on dozens of magazine covers around the world and now is threatened of disappearing.

For months Alan Donovan, 70, a lifetime to turn Africa collecting art, is fighting to prevent the "African heritage house" from being demolished and give way to the new railway line that will connect the capital Nairobi to the Mombasa port in the southeast.

For ten years, the house has hosted tourists from all over the world who visit it as if it were a museum. Its six thousand artworks whose total value is around $200,000. The African Heritage House was built in 2004 modeled on the mud architecture that resembles the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Painted walls in the living room on the third floor of the house are a reminiscent of the Ghanian Kasena tribe.

The house is located about 10 kilometres from the capital, on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. It became famous worldwide as the largest furniture magazines in the world, from France to Australia and from the US to Brazil published pictures of the rooms, chairs and paintings. It was soon turned into "the most photographed house in Africa" and saw the arrival of many intrigued tourists.

Now, seeking to renew its infrastructure, Kenya signed a $2.6 billion deal with the Chinese government to replace the railway built by Queen Victoria at the end of 1800s - and its slow trains that still travels at a speed of 40 kilometres per hour.

In its place the new railway that will be built by the Chinese company China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) to connect Nairobi to Mombasa, and will allow goods to arrive more quickly from the port to the countryside.

Born in the United States, Donovan arrived for the first time in Africa in 1967 when he worked for an NGO during the civil war in Nigeria.

"Back then I saw a lot of corruption in the aid machine, so I decided to leave and start traveling all over the continent," he said, "to Congo, Ghana, Tanzania and finally Kenya."

When he arrived in Nairobi he met the then Vice-President Joseph Murumbi, an event that would change his life. Together they opened an art gallery in a Nairobi teeming with vitality.

Wealthy adventurers in search for strong experiences in the savannah to tell stories to friends once back home; entrepreneurs ready to exploit the tourism business on the coast; as well as artists, musicians, sculptors and painters all flocked to the gallery. Donovan created unique jewelry using beads and animal bones and has hosted the works of dozens of artists from around the continent. Murumbi is still remembered as the greatest ever Pan-African art dealer.

Then came the 1990s. African artwork lost its charm, and Nairobi saw terrorist attacks against the US Embassy in 1998. The gallery suffered with its coffers increasingly empty.

"When Murumbi died in 1990 I kept the gallery moving, but I could not give it the same vitality," Donavan said. "In 2003, I declared bankruptcy, and in 2004 I opened this house putting in it many of the works that we had in the gallery."

Donovan is not alone in his fight to preserve the house. Thousands of people have already signed online petitions, and the Kenyan Ministry of Culture has undertaken to save it. If they fail, in a few years this house will most likely no longer exist.

Living in Kenya for over 40 years, Donovan has seen the progress changing the face of Africa, and now it may take away his home, a place that represent all his life while paying tribute to the achievements of African art.

Kenya Murumbi Alan Donavan Africa African Art Cultural Her... Development China Railroads

Kenya museum 01
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The house is filled with antique objects and African art.

Kenya museum 19
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Alan Donovan, 70, looks nostalgically over the savannah while sitting on his veranda. He spent his life traveling in Africa. He's seen progress changing the face of Africa, the same progress that a Chinese project evokes in its plans that include the demolition of his house, a place that represents his whole life in Africa.

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Kenya museum 18
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Alan Donovan, born in the USA, arrived for the first time in Africa in 1967 when he worked for an NGO in the Biafra crisis. "I've seen a lot of corruption in the aid machine," he said, "so I decided to leave and started traveling all over the continent."

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Kenya museum 17
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The blue sculpture near the pool is by John Och Ameny, an Ugandan artist.

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Kenya museum 16
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

One of Alan's best-loved artworks is near the pool. Its name is "Mass Communication" made by the Ugandan sculptor John Och Ameny.

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Kenya museum 15
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

One of Alan's best-loved artworks is near the pool. Its name is "Mass Communication" made by the Ugandan sculptor John Och Ameny.

Title photo for the collection
Kenya museum 14
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The African Heritage House was built in 2004 modeled on the mud architecture that resemble the Great Mosque of DjennŽ in Mali.

Kenya museum 13
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The African Heritage House was built in 2004 modeled on the mud architecture that resemble the Great Mosque of DjennŽ in Mali.

Kenya museum 12
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The African heritage house is located about ten kilometers from the capital, on the edge of the Nairobi national park. The park is been preserved to allow the animals to have a corridor to migrate. From the veranda near the horizon is possible to see zebras and ostriches.

Kenya museum 11
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The house is filled with antique objects and African art.

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Kenya museum 10
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Painted walls in the living room on the third floor of the house are a reminiscent of those of the Ghanian Kasena tribe.

Kenya museum 09
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The house is filled with antique objects and African art.

Kenya museum 08
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Alan Donovan's bedroom is also decorated with family photos.

Kenya museum 07
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Even his bathtub has been made to emphasize African design, local materials and textures.

Kenya museum 06
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

Alan Donovan's bedroom is a virtual gallery space teeming with objects from his travels throughout the continent.

Kenya museum 05
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The African heritage house is located about ten kilometers from the capital, on the edge of the Nairobi national park. The park has been preserved to allow animals to have a corridor to migrate. From the veranda, near the horizon it is possible to see zebras and ostriches.

Kenya museum 04
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The view from the African Heritage House terrace. The hut is the bar near the pool surrounded by tropical plants.

Kenya museum 03
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The house is filled with antique objects and African art.

Kenya museum 02
Nairobi, Kenya
By Antonella Palmieri
02 Aug 2014

The house is filled with antique objects and African art.