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African Life Magazine, London,
March 96


Exactly 25 years ago, Alan Donovan, the highly imaginative co-founder of Kenya’s African Heritage gallery, started one of the most important cultural trends in Africa.  He fell so much in love with jewellery made by the Turkana and Maasai people that he staged an exhibition.  Today, the fashion gurus of the world cannot get enough of this unique style of  African jewellery.  We present a truly inspiring African success story. 

In his book, Passing through Africa, Alan Donovan, co-founder of Nairobi’s African Heritage, the first Pan African gallery on the African continent, and the creator of African Heritage jewellery, tells about his time at Lake Turkana in the far northern reaches of Kenya.  Here, he created the simple necklaces of Turkana earrings that became the genesis of African Heritage Jewellery.

From this simple beginning in the 1970’s, sprang a small workshop making one of a kind neck pieces.  The demand for this uniquely African jewellery lead to several larger workshops employing hundreds of artisans who have produced over a million designs for a global market.

Donovan recalls: “The old Turkana blacksmith also hammered the brass or copper earrings called “Aparaparat,” of which Turkana women wear as many as seven on each ear, and the “Atepis,” their Egyptian-looking, coiled wire lip plug accented with a red bead.

“One day I bought all the hammered brass earrings that the blacksmith had created from a roll of brass wire.  It was then that I started to make simple necklaces by stringing these earrings with Turkana glass beads.  These were actually trade beads from Czechoslovakia.  From this beginning I eventually established a jewellery workshop using Turkana "Aparaparat" and Maasai “Surutia” (the coiled brass earrings worn by Maasai married women or young Maasai boys before circumcision).  This workshop I called “Nala,” which is my name, Alan, spelt backwards although many people think it is a Swahili word.

“At that time, I had no particular aim as to what to do with these items other than to give them to my friends and hang them on my wall.  I had already put together several simple necklaces from the beautiful elements I had bought in the West African bead markets".

“My experience in Turkana changed my life completely and forever.”

Later in his book he describes working with another jewellery designer in Kenya: “I wanted to learn more about making jewellery, so I moved down to Mombasa for a few weeks to study jewellery making at the Bombolulu Workshop.  Bombolulu had been set up by an American Peace Corps volunteer named Holland Millis.  The workshop was organised by the Government as a rehabilitation project for people who has been severely injured or traumatized in accidents.

The only requirement to join the workshop was that a person must have at least one limb.  There were blind people, some people missing legs, others missing an arm and a leg, many of them with emotional problems connected with re-entering society.

“Holland assigned a task to each one of them.  The person with one leg used it to twine leaver from banana trees, fashioning the leaves into cords and ropes for necklaces or bracelets.  The blind man cut copper pipes into exact lengths required for beads by feeling the lengths on templates given to him.  Another blind man filed and hammered the rough ends while a sighted person hammered and filed finished touches, producing beads from the copper of nearby Zaire, home of enormous copper deposits... Holland insisted on using only local materials in the designs for the workshop, seed pods, coconut shell, nuts and banana fibre, all of which could be collected near the workshop.  His designs were superb, and nearly 25 years later they are still being produced.

“Within two weeks I had designed and assembled a collection of over three dozen necklaces.”  Holland had also done some special designs from the West African components  I had given to him.  I thought the results were spectacular.  “Errol Trebinsky came by to see us one day.  She was an author, doing research into the life of Dennis Fitch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover, immortalized in the film Out of Africa, and her book was used as a primary reference work for the film.

“She was completely enamored with the necklaces I was making from pieces from all over Africa: gold and cast brass from Ghana, silver from Ethiopia, polished oxen horn from Madagascar, beads chipped from the thick shell of the coconut or seed pods in Nigeria or from ostrich egg shell by the Turkana in Kenya, sea-shells, amber from Mali and Morocco, hand carved polished malachite from Zaire and Zambia, false coral and hand-made glass beads from Ghana, faience and scarabs from Egypt, jasper and agates reserved fro the King and his most exalted subjects in old Benin.  These so weighted down the King that he could not walk without attendants to support him when in his royal regalia.”

“Giraffe tails, crocodile teeth, warthog tusks, even hippo teeth and beetle wings, were used in those first designs before I stopped using animal parts, other than cow horn and cow bone.”

Alan tells of his first exhibition of African Heritage Jewellery in Nairobi: “I was nervously arranging each necklace on its  own board in the windows and in the arches of the small back-room gallery.  It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I was still painting boards to accentuate the colours of each necklace or displaying them on African textiles, and installing more spot lights to illuminate each one.

I was in the back room on my hands and knees, when a man stepped over the cord I had put across the entry and started looking at the displays. He removed one of the boards, and  then another.  I walked over to him and said, ‘This is an exhibition and it opens  at 6.30pm.  If you want to reserve anything I  can put a sticker on it, but please do not remove the things from the display.’

 ‘He looked at me and through his spectacles and replied in a thick Texan accent, But I want it all.’

I said, 'well, tell me which ones you would like' He replied, 'I want all of them.  I want the boards they are on.  I want the whole wall.  I want all the necklaces and the wall they are on.'

Just then his wife came in.  He was down on his hands and knees reading one of the labels.  His wife drawled: ‘I only have one neck!'"

“They’re not for you.’ “Well then, who are they for?’

“Did you ever see anything like this?’ he exclaimed, pointing at one of the necklaces on its board, still lying on the floor."

“His wife knelt down beside him, ‘Well, to tell you the truth I guess I haven’t’"

“This stuff is great.  It’s wonderful!’ he said aside to me.  ‘Do you have any more at home?’ "

“That night I posted a sign on the exhibit: ‘All Sold’."

The exhibit of jewellery traveled to Texas and over the next few months it was shown at Neiman Marcus Galleries, the Jane C. Lee Gallery with an exhibition of gouaches by Hans Hofmann and prints by Larry Scholder, then  to Bergdorf  Goodman’s in New York City.

On Donovan’s first tour of the USA with a jewellery collection back in 1971, with John Browse, who became the manager of the Folk and Craft Museum in Los Angeles, a whole city block in New York city was roped off by the mayor’s office.

His initial tour of the USA included a huge exhibit at Jesse Jackson’s “Operation Breadbasket” in Chicago’s cavernous international amphitheatre for the Third Annual “Black Expo.”

Thereafter the jewellery was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Harcus Krakow Rosen and Sonnabend Galleries in Boston, UCSD at Lajolla California, The Sculpture to Wear Gallery at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, The Museum of  Natural History in New York, Bloomingdales department store in New York, The Field Museum in Chicago, The Folk and Craft Museum in Los Angeles, and many other venues in America.

Donovan did not return to America for another three years, when he found that things had changed and there were a multitude of designers using African beads.

This was reflected in the prices he found for beads in West Africa.  A necklace of Mali amber had gone from $3.00 to over $100.00 (now worth well over $ 400.00) and trade beads had gone from $5.00 a strand to $30.00 a strand in just a few short years.

For the first decade, his jewellery workshops produced mostly one of a kind necklaces, but as time went by and sources of supplies were networked, the workshops started repeating limited numbers of several designs and manufacturing components.  The "Jungle Safari" workshop was set up 1979 when Alan was asked to produce his largest showing up to that time at a special event to celebrate the opening of new gift shops at the San Diego Zoo:

“Thirty thousand guests, mostly lifetime members of the Zoo, were invited for two nights and several thousand showed up.  The zoo had employed 16 professionals models to present the African Heritage Collection.  A bridge was specially constructed over a lagoon filled with flamingos, surrounded by  candlelit tables set on tiers.  Baseball stadium lights were brought in for the occasion.  Two bands, one the Koumpo National Drum Ensemble from Ghana, set a stately rhythm as gorgeous models stepped out of a jungle and danced, marched and strutted onto the bridge bathed in amber, lavender and white lights”.

Donovan says his biggest mistake was when he attempted to mass produce ethnic jewellery from Kenya for a huge chain of stores in America and that he will never attempt to do such a large order again.

Alan still produces five lines of jewellery.  Besides the original African Heritage Jewellery created from elements from across the African continent, and the Jungle Safari and Nala lines, there is ‘Endangered Art’, a workshop using mostly silver and gold elements with semi precious and precious stones and ‘Malaika’ created mostly from brass sheets and local material, a workshop started for poor people in one of the large slums of Nairobi.

Although his workshops are much smaller than they were at their peak and exports have dropped considerably, he still supplies the gift shop of the Museum of African Art in Washington, DC through African Heritage, Nairobi.

Many of the craftspeople who started producing jewellery or components in the African Heritage Jewellery Workshop now produce their own designs for export to Europe, Japan and America.

Donovan’s last tour of Europe was to nine cities in 1995 which he says will be his last.  His last “Africa Heritage Night” was presented by the United Nations (Habitat) in Nairobi as part of the world-wide celebrations of the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

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