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Periodical article Periodical article
Title:Cultural Property as Global Commodities: The case of Mijikenda memorial statues
Authors:Giles, L.L.
Udvardy, M.
Mitsanze, J.B.
Periodical:Cultural Survival Quarterly
Geographic term:Kenya
Subjects:Mijikenda - ethnic group
Abstract:As is still customary among the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya, back in the early 1980s, Katana, an elderly man from the Giriama subgroup, erected two carved memorial posts to commemorate his two recently deceased brothers. Called vigango (kigango when singular), such statues must be carved for deceased family members who belong to the Gohu society, a male fraternal organization. In 1985, cultural anthropologist Monica Udvardy visited Katana to learn about this semi-secret society, and photographed him beside the two posts. Shortly after Udvardy's visit, however, Katana awoke to find that both vigango had been stolen. He was heartbroken, for their disappearance not only severed the tangible link they represented to his two brothers, but would also anger their spirits, who would then cause harm to living members of his family. Moreover, the ritual carving and erection of these vigango had been a costly affair. When Udvardy returned with photographs of the vigango, Katana gratefully accepted them and asked for her help in locating the stolen vigango. Because vigango are commonly sold to art dealers and collectors, Udvardy searched in coastal hotels and antiquities shops, but to not avail. Fifteen years later, however, at a conference on Mijikenda culture, she recognized one of Katana's vigango in a slide that her colleague, Linda Giles, showed of the African art collection then owned by the Illinois State University museum. Soon afterward, while perusing museum catalogues, Udvardy and Giles located Katana's other stolen kigango in the collection of Hampton University Museum in Virginia. Museum records noted that the latter kigango had been collected in Kenya by a well-known American art dealer during the same year that it was stolen from Katana and was later donated to the museum by another individual. The fate of Katana's vigango is not unusual; there has been widespread theft and global trade in vigango for several decades. Westerners view them as “art,” giving them high value in the global market and perpetuating their theft from the Mijikenda. Stealing vigango is especially egregious because they are ritual artifacts that are part of a living culture. Moreover, according to indigenous belief, vigango are inalienable and should never be removed from their site of erection. As Richard Leakey, the famous paleontologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya, has remarked, the trade in vigango is “a sacrilege.”. (Journal Abstract)