|THE CASE OF THE STOLEN STATUES: SOLVING A KENYAN MYSTERY|
From the NEW YORK TIMES:
April 16, 2006
By MARC LACEY
KAKWAKWANI, Kenya - Out behind Kache Kalume Mwakiru's
homestead, not far from a mango tree, is a patch of dirt that figures into
an international struggle over pilfered cultural artifacts.
"This is where they were," said Ms. Mwakiru, 86, pointing out where her
husband erected two traditional wooden statues, known as vigango by the
local Mijikenda people, around 1983. About two years after the statues went
up to honor her husband's deceased brothers, someone took them away in the
night. Eventually they made their way to two American museums.
Ill fortune has befallen the family ever since, Ms. Mwakiru said. She cites
her husband's death two years after the theft, the failure of the family's
crops and assorted illnesses she and others have suffered. Such are the
powers associated with vigango, which are put up to appease the spirits but
have also become popular among Western collectors of African art.
The theft of vigango is not uncommon. Four vigango were snatched in February
from a homestead not far from this coastal village, about an hour's drive
from Mombasa. But what is so unusual about the theft at the Mwakiru place
more than 20 years ago is that the vigango have been traced to the United
States, and at least one will be returning home soon from an Illinois
museum. An American anthropologist, Monica L. Udvardy, of the University of
Kentucky, played a major role in unfolding the mystery. Ms. Udvardy
interviewed Kalume Mwakiru, Ms. Mwakiru's husband, in 1985 as part of her
field research on the Mijikenda people.
She also took a photo of Mr. Mwakiru standing proudly in front of his two
vigango, sculptured from hard wood into a rough human form and adorned with
strips of cloth. When Ms. Udvardy went back to Mr. Mwakiru's home several
months later to give him a copy of the photograph, he told her of the theft
and asked for help in getting the statues back.
Ms. Udvardy searched tourist shops and hotels where vigango were on sale at
the time for several hundred dollars apiece, but she came up empty. It was
not until 1999 that she came across one - at a conference.
She was at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, in
Philadelphia, when a participant, Linda L. Giles, showed slides of some of
the African artifacts at the museum at Illinois State University.
"I stopped her presentation and said, 'Wait, wait, go back to that slide,' "
Ms. Udvardy recalled. There was a match.
Ms. Udvardy and Ms. Giles then began studying how such statues find their
way to the United States, where they sell for up to $5,000. The researchers
tracked down 294 vigango at 19 American museums, including Mr. Mwakiru's
other statue. That one was at Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which
had the largest collection of vigango, 99 in all.
They traced most to a single art dealer, Ernie Wolfe III, a prominent
collector of African artifacts and the owner of the Ernie Wolfe Gallery in
Mr. Wolfe said in an e-mail message that he was "horrified and deeply
saddened" to learn that two vigango he had purchased from a souvenir shop
along the Kenyan coast were now said to be stolen.
In February, the National Museums of Kenya sent letters to the two American
museums seeking the statues' return to the Mwakiru homestead. Officials at
the Illinois State Museum, in Springfield, to which a collection of 38
vigango was transferred from Illinois State University in 2001, have agreed
to do so.
"We realized it was removed illegally," said Michael Wiant, an
anthropologist at the Illinois State Museum. "The answer was an easy one."
Hampton University Museum is still studying the matter. "We're looking into
it," said Mary Lou Hultgren, the curator.
What is at stake is not just the fate of the two statues from Kakwakwani but
also what should be done with other vigango that might have been stolen.
"This is a very complicated affair," Mr. Wiant said. "The question is, 'What
do you do when you have 37 items that were perhaps obtained
inappropriately?' We should have a dialogue. We should address this
Mr. Wolfe, the dealer who transferred many vigango to the United States,
disputes the notion that they were improperly obtained. He noted in an
e-mail message that the Mijikenda frequently relocated their homesteads in
search of fertile land and left behind the statues, which he said showed
"the limited temporal spiritual power and importance granted these figures
by their creators."
Mr. Wolfe has sold many of the statues to private individuals who then
donated them to museums.
One of Ms. Mwakiru's missing vigango followed this route. It appears to have
been sold to Powers Boothe, an actor, who then donated it and seven other
vigango to the museum at Illinois State University in 1986, records show.
Mr. Boothe is not the only celebrity to have bought vigango. Gene Hackman,
Linda Evans, Shelley Hack and Dirk Benedict have all owned them, museum
records show. Three vigango were included in the Sotheby's catalog for Andy
Warhol's estate, although they appear to have been received from another
dealer. Mr. Wolfe once told The New York Times that he regretted that he had
not accepted Mr. Warhol's offer to trade a portrait for one of the statues.
Mr. Wolfe, who wrote a 1986 book called "Vigango: The Commemorative
Sculpture of the Mijikenda of Kenya," said he found many "deactivated
vigango" available in shops during his trips to Kenya in the 1970's, 80's
and 90's "whose ritual obsolescence had allowed them to be removed from
their original context and to be made into international art commodities."
He described sitting around the fire with Mijikenda elders and receiving
approval for his trade in the statues. "I was told how the receipt of money
for vigango was a perfect validation of their belief in the powers of these
important ancestor spirits," Mr. Wolfe said.
But Ms. Udvardy disagrees with Mr. Wolfe's interpretation that traded
vigango are castaways, as does John Baya Mitsanze, a Kenyan museum curator
of Mijikenda ancestry who said the statue honoring his grandfather was
stolen years ago.
According to custom, Ms. Udvardy argues, vigango should never be moved, even
if a family relocates and leaves them behind.
Similarly, Mr. Mitsanze said, most of the statues available for sale in
shops were not handed over by their owners or abandoned, but instead were -
like his grandfather's - pulled from the ground without authorization and
offered for sale.
Unemployed Mijikenda youths take them and sell them to tourist shops, he
said. Some of the youths even believe in the power of the statues and are
said to perform counterrituals to avoid misfortune as they steal them.
Mr. Wolfe said he stopped importing vigango more than a decade ago, although
his Web site still advertises them for sale. The statues also remain on the
market in Kenyan shops. To reduce the trade, Mijikenda activists have begun
a campaign to curtail the theft of more statues.
Some people now put concrete in the ground at the base of their vigango to
make it more difficult to pull them out. Elders authorized one vigango
carver to create fake statues for sale at tourist shops. But that carver
died, and there is now a dispute in the community about whether carving
replicas cheapens the real thing.
Mr. Mitsanze now travels to Mijikenda communities photographing the vigango
still in the ground. He also has a list of about 200 people who say statues
dedicated to their ancestors were taken.
Just the other day, he took a visitor to the home of Dissi Ngowa to point
out the four vigango he photographed in February.
"They're right here," Mr. Mitsanze said, walking toward the spot where the
vigango had been. "No, wait. They were here."
Mr. Ngowa said his statues had disappeared a few weeks after Mr. Mitsanze's
last visit. Mr. Ngowa had put up the statues to stop a bout of bad luck,
including failed harvests and the death of many of his livestock. It cost a
huge sum by local standards, about $850, to have them carved and to put on
the festivities associated with their installation, and Mr. Ngowa fully
expects the bad luck to return now that the statues are gone.
Mr. Ngowa then got on his knees and spoke to his ancestors. He poured some
corn flour and water on the earth where the vigango had been and spoke
soothingly to his late father, uncle and two more distant ancestors.
"Take this water and be contented," he said.