On January 15, 2014 the California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), repatriated twenty-seven Mijikenda vigango memorial wood posts. Ten days later the vigango figures were air-freighted to Kenya, their place of origin. The success of this endeavor depends on one's point of view. University administrators and Kenyan embassy officials in 2011 had signed the transfer documents with a no blame proviso. Bureaucratic procedures and unanticipated hindrances delayed the repatriation and almost thwarted it. Assisted by the US State Department, repatriation went ahead, concluding a process begun in 2008. After nearly a decade success at last! A job well done! Mission accomplished! But where in Kenya? And where are the vigango?
Donated in 1991 to the Department of Anthropology at CSUF, many people had a hand in the repatriation effort. Mitch Avila, then associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, noted, “‥ it took three deans, a couple of [CSUF] presidents, several provosts, and lots of faculty and staff involvement to pull this off.”1 Ultimately, it included the Kenyan ambassador and a United States congressman.
My involvement began as a casual observer. My curiosity was piqued, however, by discussions about the eventual placement of this disused collection—keeping it, gifting it to a suitable museum in the United States, or repatriation to Kenya—and by in-house debates about repatriation, an issue that looms large in museum epistemology. As discussions became heated, the administration dropped a blanket over the vigango issue, then renegotiated repatriation. After the vigango arrived in Kenya, I became more curious because no one knew or cared where the igures were located. Colleagues had lost interest, administrators were diffident, and Kenyan consular officials had no clue. Experts I contacted—American anthropologists Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles and Kenyan ex-curator John Mitsanze—were as puzzled as I was.
This is the story of that repatriation, a project complicated by law, bureaucracy, advocacy, international marketing, Kenyan internal affairs, and the Mijikenda.2 Although vigango are listed as “protected objects” by the NMK (National Museums of Kenya) and recognized as the cultural patrimony of peoples in the Republic of Kenya under the 1983 Antiquities and Monuments Act of Kenya, Kenya until recently had not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Prott 1996: 29–44; Kouroupas 1996: 87–93).
No international laws prevent Westerners from owning vigango and Kenyan law does not prevent their sale. They may be purchased “with impunity,” anthropologist David Parkin tells us (1986: 19). Available in Nairobi and Mombasa art galleries and tourist craft shops, they are objects nobody initially made any bones about. Joseph Murumbi, first vice-president of Kenya and co-owner (with Alan Donovan) of African Heritage Gallery, a popular shop in Nairobi for upscale tourists and collectors, displayed and sold them (Kasfir 1992: Fig. 18). They appear in Nairobi coffee shop window displays. In March 2009 Kenya gazetted vigango as protected objects, but restrictions on exporting them are weak. Wiped clean by legerdemain—cash transactions, fake receipts—vigango reside in museums and private collections outside Kenya (Udvardy 2013). Actors Gene Hackman, Powers Boothe, Linda Evans, Dirk Benedict, and Shelly Hack are among the Hollywood celebs who have owned them (Udvardy et al. 2003). Three vigango were in the Sotheby's catalog for Andy Warhol's estate (Lacey 2006). They are a collectible cultural art.
VIGANGO MEMORIAL SPIRIT MARKERS
The Mijikenda live between Mombasa and Lamu just inland from the Kenyan coastal plain. Known as the “nine tribes” (Giriama, Rabai, Ribe, Kambe, Kauma, Jibana, Chonyi, Duruma, and Digo, although the latter two, heavily Islamized, do not carve vigango), they are mostly Muslims or Christians, girdled by local animist traditions.3 They share economic niches and a coalesced identity derived from colonialism (Willis 1993: 28–29). They are said to have migrated from what is now southern Ethiopia, finding a safe haven in the rolling hills of southeastern Kenya, along the Indian Ocean, with sufficient rainfall for farming (Wolfe 1979: 4). The map in Figure 1 shows the original village locations of CSUF's repatriated vigango.4
Vigango are Mijikenda commemorative spirit markers. These representational effigies, four to six feet high (Fig. 2), are sacred reminders of deceased ancestors (Brown 1972: 20). Unlike the identifying headstones of Western internment practices, vigango honor the dead but are not grave markers. Solicited by members of an elite group known as Gohu (Wolfe 1986: 54–55) they memorialize powerful men of this society (Fig. 3). The posts are placed near a Gohu member's house in or near a thatched shelter (Fig. 4). Linda Giles likens the Gohu to a fraternity not unlike the socially responsive Rotary Club in the United States (Giles 2014: 78), while Nancy Ngowa likens them to clergy in the traditional religion of the Mijikenda (2016: 2).
The posts form a visual link between the world of the living and the memorable dead, and interfacing these worlds is important to a family's welfare. An unhappy spirit is blamed for crop failure, illness, even death. Spirits may appear in a dream; a healer may suggest erecting a kigango (the singular of vigango) or—if for an ordinary citizen—a koma, half the size, plain, little more than a stick figure. Koma are generalized ancestral spirits more widely distributed than vigango.5 As long as the ancestor is remembered, family and Gohu members make offerings to these figures.
Flat, two-dimensional, chip-carved boards, vigango follow a formulaic simplicity but vary in detail. Some have faces with rounded naturalistic heads (Fig. 5), or discs with highly schematized designs (Fig. 6). Also common are oblong (Fig. 7) and rectangular heads (Fig. 8), and ones with minimal facial features (Fig. 9). They are usually elaborated with incised triangular motifs (Fig. 10) that may represent ribs or incisions that are indicative of other body features. Many are notched to represent the waist (Fig. 11) or other anatomical features (Fig. 12). Some are painted (Fig. 13) with white pigment and red vegetation stains, charcoal or soot black, even modern laundry bluing. Some are adorned with a twist of cloth at the neck or waist (Fig. 14). Some have unusual architectonic markings (Fig. 15) and show unusual configurations (Fig. 16). Incision marks and paint do not carry a load of meaning, but identify an individual. (The absence of markings indicates a leper.) Modern or refurbished posts supplant the traditional paint palette with foreign or imported oil-based pigments (Sieber 1986: 25–34; Wolfe 1986: 56–58).
“Planted” near local homesteads, they are left there when these seminomadic agricultural landholders move. Udvardy says that “They are nearly always in a homestead, mostly at the edge … to protect them from the elements … [and] if one is found outside the homestead it has probably been let behind when the homestead moved.”6 In a slash-and-burn environment, they are sometimes destroyed by fire or a tractor plow7 (Parkin 1986: 19). Made of hardwood from the muhuhu tree, they are also subject to rot and rain, but not termites.
WHAT ABOUT EXPATRIATED VIGANGO?
They are also subject to theft. Vigango are illicitly removed as part of an inside job, by somebody in the household or a neighbor. Posts are clumped, in haphazard fashion, not difficult to identify and not easy to sneak up on. Vigango posts are now sometimes embedded in concrete or protected by a wire cage (Udvardy et al. 2003).
Because the vigango have commercial value, family arguments arise over selling their vigango or continuing to honor them as ancestral markers. As a rule, elders care more about tradition, while the young opt for sale. Nancy Ngowa is very clear on this matter: Youths collect the vigango, seeing these figures as a business opportunity “in supplying tourists. and failed to take into consideration the religious and cultural implications of their actions” (2016: 4). She says there was “a booming trade … in the 1980s when tourists would buy the carvings and take them abroad” (Ngowa 2016: 4). For some, the vigango are a sacred patrimony; others see these igures as a negotiable commodity (Brantley 1981: 151–53; Willis 1993: 28–30).
Ernie Wolfe, an art dealer in Los Angeles, says that local Mijikenda are nonchalant about their vigango, while Udvardy says their thet is a source of consternation to Mijikenda elders. Generational diferences and shits in cultural focus have created a cultural cleavage for much of the twentieth century (Willis 1993: 184–85), but is now more pronounced. Some Mijikenda have less need to tap into the collective memory of their ancestors in times of stress. Mijikenda are small-scale farmers and casual laborers, but those more receptive to change work in hotels and for the coastal tourist trade (Kusimba 1996), and are indifferent. Although it is considered “bad form” to uproot them, Parkin says there is little adverse reaction (1986: 19).
Most of the art world's information about vigango posts and the Mijikenda came from Wolfe's exhibition book on the Giriama Mijikenda, which has extensive field photographs of vigango, Mijikenda initiations, meetings of elders, and the setting up of a shrine. It includes his essay “Collector's Note and Acknowledgments” (1979: 11–16) and essays by Africanist art historian Roy Sieber (1986: 25–34) and anthropologist Parkin (1986: 17–24). It includes an endorsement from the Kenyan ambassador to the United States. A subsequent version focuses on the sculptural tradition (Wolfe 1986).
Wolfe sees the vigango through a curator-collector's eyes, which regards them as “the wonderful cross-cultural ambassadors that they have become. They are truly pan-humanistic representations of the human form. They are human abstractions and are the most beautifully common denominators.”8
Udvardy's talking points focus on the social contexts of the vigango and pillaged cultural heritage. She and Giles urge their return to the Mijikenda owners. Cultural ownership is paramount, as is their advocacy, although it may be hard to find the original owners.
DUELING POINTS OF VIEW
Vigango have become art collectible commodities because of their aesthetic minimalism and Wolfe's pivotal efforts. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the Los Angeles dealer created an international market for them. An enthusiastic dealer and amateur anthropologist, Mr. Wolfe holds a degree in art history. He is what in the trade is called “a picker.” He can spot or create a trend (e.g., Ghanaian movie posters, Wolfe 2011).9 His writings on the vigango (Wolfe 1979, 1986) highlight the cultural art history of the Mijikenda (see Cole 1987: 74–75).
Wolfe was not the only dealer of note selling vigango. James Willis in San Francisco and Reginald Groux in Paris handled sales of related types of objects. However, Mr. Wolfe was the most newsworthy. The Wall Street Journal (Keates 2009), The New York Times (Spindler 2002), and other major newspapers commented on the divergent views of celebrity gallerist Wolfe and repatriation champions Udvardy, Giles, and Mitsanze.
Udvardy, Giles, and Mitsanze say that the vigango Wolfe sold were illegally removed by unemployed kids; in Udvardy's words: “probably stolen or acquired through ethically controversial means.”10 Wolfe says he bought most of them from souvenir shops in Mombasa.11 Uprooted vigango are sold by runners contracted by souvenir shops or sold by thieves directly to shop owners. Wolfe negotiated a few with elders who, he says, approved the sale. Wolfe defends collecting, selling, and exhibiting them. These vigango were “deactivated” with “limited temporal power” and “ritually obsolete” (Lacey 2006), their spiritual powers spent. Anyway, they were abandoned, Wolfe says, and, at the times he visited Kenya, hardly regarded as cultural icons.
Udvardy, Giles, and Mitsanze say the vigango are not throwaways. Buying them from youths who uprooted them, elders who profited from the sale but do not own them, or souvenir shops does not mean they had become socially defunct or spiritually inactive. They claim that most were removed without authorization and illegally bought by dealers and tourists. Udvardy says the Mijikenda often move their homesteads in search of arable or grazing ground but may later return. They disagree with Wolfe, who sees relocation as validation for reframing the vigango as marketable “international art commodities” (Lacey 2006).
VIGANGO IN MUSEUMS
Some twenty institutions in the United States own about 400 vigango. In 1999 Udvardy,12 an anthropologist at the University of Kentucky, discovered a kigongo in a collection at Illinois State University (ISU) at Normal that she had recorded as stolen while conducting field research among the Giriama in 1985 (Giles et al. 2003; Udvardy et al. 2003, Udvardy 2013). In 1992 Giles, then a faculty member at ISU, discovered a collection of vigango among the artifacts rescued from the holdings of the ISU Museum after the Museum shut down permanently the year before.
Udvardy and Giles teamed up, documented vigango in US museum collections, and realized that some were illegally acquired. Journalist Mark Pflanz in Kenya also raised the issue— his Christian Science Monitor and Daily Telegraph articles (Pflanz 2006a, b) brought worldwide attention to vigango. These, together with an almost full-page article about their theft in The New York Times (Lacey 2006) and the later report by Udvardy et al. (2013) in American Anthropologist, brought media fame for the vigango. They uncovered a transatlantic trade in these memorial figures (Giles, Udvardy, and Mitsanze 2003; Udvardy and Giles 2011).
A few museums surrendered a few figures. In 2006, the Illinois State Museum and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia (Lacey 2006, Udvardy and Giles 2011) surrendered one each from their collections (the Illinois State Museum had thirty-eight, the Hampton University Museum had ninety-nine) after the NMK requested that they be returned to the Mijikenda families they had been removed from, based on photographic evidence that Udvardy supplied. In 2007 Boston University repatriated nine vigango in a ceremony that was held at the United Nations (CBC 2007) and created a museum exhibit for educating the public about repatriation. All in all, about a dozen vigango have been repatriated.
Recently, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) opted to return thirty vigango gifted in 1990 by actor Gene Hackman and movie producer Art Linson. Repatriation commenced in 2008. “It took the museum five years to negotiate” the deal, “details of which remain under negotiation” (Mashberg 2014: C4–5). Approved for return to Kenya on February 25, 2014, the DMNS effort (Nash and Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2014) parallels that of CSUF in time and procedure, if not intention. Packed and ready to go, the vigango never left Denver, however.13
The CSUF collection was not on Udvardy's tally of US institutions holding vigango. CSUF's repatriation was never really about returning the vigango to their rightful owners, the Mijikenda. It was about legal ownership and political liability. Administrators feared creating a publicity scandal for the university that might affect its federal funding. And so CSUF officials notified the NMK and Kenyan consular officers that they wanted to repatriate the university's vigango.
THE CSUF DONATION
In December 1991, the CSUF Division of Anthropology received a donation of 27 vigango, arranged by Los Angeles art dealer/collector Ernie Wolfe III on behalf of Joseph and Laura Ciaramella.14 Mr. Wolfe had field-collected the posts, and he gave invaluable information on them and the Mijikenda. About the same number of posts were donated to Mesa College in San Diego. Wolfe freely admits that he introduced a market for the vigango after one of his many trips to Africa. By the 1980s the posts had become trendy in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Records show that the Ciaramellas had the vigango appraised for $200,000 (Scheinberg 1990) just before they donated them; a year earlier they had been appraised at $81,000. A decade later they had assessed art market values of $4,000–5,000 each. Vigango sold at a 2012 Paris auction for $5,000 and at a 2013 Sotheby's auction for $11,900. About $150,000–250,000 is a reasonable present-day assessment of market value for these vigango.
NAGPRA, THE NSF AWARD, AND CSUF
The repatriation effort at CSUF fits in an atmosphere of other events. One was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted November 1990. In 2011 Museum Anthropology published a thematic issue commemorating the twentieth anniversary of NAGPRA that focused on remains stored as museum specimens (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Nash 2011). Although NAGPRA focused on Native American historic artifacts and human remains, it resonated widely as a model for the return of objects and artworks illegally acquired from colonial times to the present.
American natural history museums were alarmed for their holdings of human remains of Native American groups. In the early 2000s, the German Museums Association beefed up its ethical guidelines for the return of remains. The Economist (2014: 28) reported that a Berlin hospital returned the body parts of thirty individuals to Australia and New Zealand. Trade in human remains still occurs, however. The same magazine article reported the arrest of an Italian in central Africa caught exporting forty human skulls from Burundi to Thailand. Other major newspapers reported Native American artifacts like Hopi and Apache ritual objects had appeared at a Paris auction, although increasing publicity about tribal artifacts has given a fresh impetus to restitution.
Following NAGPRA guidelines, CSUF archaeologists itemized their collections. Bones and ritual items were set aside for return to legitimate descendants. Items for Hawaii and Southern California Native American groups were decorously returned.
A second event was the National Science Foundation (NSF) infrastructure award, a $1,000,000 matching grant to add lab space for a new Department of Anthropology at CSUF. This arrangement fit nicely into the typical four-field approach for the department's BA and MA programs. The award funded a museum and computer lab, as well as labs for archaeology, osteology, and primatology. An NSF enhanced teaching award of $100,000 allowed for a visual anthropology lab as a teaching and service unit.
NAGPRA and the NSF awards spurred a rethinking of the anthropology department. Was the museum a collections facility, or a teaching facility, or both? Department staff reconfigured the museum as a training and research facility in museum studies (Parman 2003). Citing Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998), Susan Parman, who developed the NSF grant, noted that
It is not objects themselves in an exhibit that connotes class status but the role of curators who manipulate category relations when they generate inventories and arrangements … The [Department of Anthropology museum] is a training ground for experiments in representation and self-reflection. It is not so much composed of material objects that represent the culture of others, but explorations of acts of construction (2003: 61).
THE CSUF EXHIBITION AND REPATRIATION
The postmodern turn in the social sciences helped to reconceptualize an undergraduate university anthropology museum as “collectionless,” focused on virtual exhibitions and ideas about museum collections. The brochure for the anthropology's vigango exhibition states: “Our mission is to teach students how to develop museum objects, rather than to collect ethnographic objects.”
Because this would be a collectionless museum, there was no reason to keep the vigango. Repatriation efforts were combined with a museum science course in 2008 that focused on the vigango. The campus and community could see the vigango before their return to Kenya and be made aware of issues around repatriation and cultural patrimony.15 Titled Closer to Home: Repatriating Kenya's Vigango, the exhibition brochure had these instructive headings:
Who Are the Mijikenda?
Why Are Vigango Made?
For Whom Are Vigango Made?
What Is Repatriation?
How Did These Vigango Get to CSUF?
Why Are the Vigango Going Back to Kenya?
With a paltry $1,000, students placed vigango in covered buckets of sand (Fig. 17); others were set in a sandbox with lighting suggesting a dusky gray day, to symbolize ambivalence (Fig. 18). Wall displays showed where the CSUF vigango came from, village by village (with information provided by Ernie Wolfe), the history of Kenya, and the issue of repatriation. Simple but effective.
To facilitate repatriation, the department contacted archaeologist Chapurukha Kusimba. Then Curator of African Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a Research Associate at the NMK, he researches Swahili and Giriama peoples on the Kenya Coast. Dr. Idle Farah, then Director General of the NMK, also agreed to assist. Kusimba would meet the shipment at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, clear it through customs, and the NMK would truck the vigango to the Fort Jesus Museum at Mombasa. Working with colleagues and village elders, they would identify the owners of the vigango.
A laudable if optimistic plan. Divergent schedules sank it, as did departmental contention. The administration set up a committee that had its own tack and contacted US Congressman Ed Royce and the State Department. In April 2011 Royce met with the Kenyan ambassador, the Honorable Elkanah Odembo, in Washington, DC. On November 21, 2011, Royce, university officials, and Kenyan consular officers met on campus and signed the transfer documents. The twenty-seven vigango were then crated.16
Negotiations dragged on for more than two years over shipping and costs. Piracy off the Somali coast ruled out shipment by sea. Then, suddenly, the vigango left CSUF for LAX to Kenya on January 24, 2014. Associate dean Avila explains,
As it turns out, two serendipitous events occurred. First, as a result of the sequester [the Obama budget sequester of funds imposed January 2013] the State Department had a fund of money that had been set aside for returning cultural artifacts such as the vigango and those funds need[ed] to be dispersed by Sept 30 . Second, [Congressman] Ed Royce became the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee [in January 2013] and influence from his office now commands respect even in the far corners of the globe. Money for the return of the vigango was transferred to Kenyan National Museum, and US Embassy personnel in Kenya have been helpful in moving this process forward.17
Orange County Kenyans had a jaundiced view. The shipment would disappear in Nairobi, they said, or be hijacked on the road from Nairobi to Mombasa, and the vigango would be recycled into the artifact commodity market. Udvardy and Giles (2011) admit that the NMK is porous and attention to heritage sites lax, a situation noted by others (Karoma 1996; Kusimba 1996; Mturi 1996; Wilson and Omar 1996).
VIGANGO: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Heritage collection ethics is a thorny, grainy issue. Repatriation is convoluted. It is “never straightforward” says Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the curator at the DMNS. “But,” he adds, “just because a museum is not legally required to return cultural property does not mean it lacks an ethical obligation to do so” (Mashberg 2014).
Ethics or not, the vigango raise legal, political, and proprietary issues. Immediately evident are the rights of those who acquired the objects against those demanding repatriation or restitution, equations that include national heritage and patrimony laws, the sovereignty of specific objects, and the politicization of cultural heritage.18
At issue are the concerns of art historians and the excavation practices of archaeologists, the pedagogical goals of public and university museums, the desire of the institution to protect its collections and honor its promises to benefactors and to satisfy the imperative claims on those objects. There are the proprietary rights of those who lay claim to the objects. It is a contested arena, from James Cuno's (2008) pious assertion that the West protects the heritage of the rest of the world to Kwame Okopu's (2014) persistent missives demanding return to origin.
Defenders of their collections see their domain as a “curatoreum” that, like a crypt, preserves the dead; repatriation activists see these depositories as a “curatorium” that destroys cultural identity just as a crematorium destroys the dead. To complicate matters, at around the same time the world of Southern California museums was roiled by accusations of illegal acquisitions. The Getty's statue of Aphrodite illuminated the ethical pitfalls of acquiring antiquities (Frammolino 2011; Felch and Frammolino 2011). The case resonated with CSUF because the then president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Barry Munitz, who oversaw the Getty Center in Los Angeles, had earlier served as a controversial chancellor of the twenty-three-campus California State University system.
In 2008 an undercover investigation by federal agencies focused on four southern California museums—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, and the Bowers Museum of Art in Santa Ana—and raided them as part of the inquiry. The Bowers had ties to the CSUF Department of Anthropology through internships and guest lectures, but had no connection to the “so-called Bang Chiang culture” of Thailand, the focus of the federal investigation. In the end, the Bowers was determined not to have violated any laws.19
This murky atmosphere and series of morally ambiguous deals, as well as a national swirl of federal investigations at other museums—the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland Museum, etc.—plus international demands for repatriation—the Elgin Marbles and Benin bronzes from the British Museum, the Getty Aphrodite—provided ample cautionary notes about the pitfalls of acquiring antiquities and other patrimony.
Udvardy et al. point to Shelley Errington's revealing statement that “Art was invented simultaneously with collecting, and the two are inconceivable without each other” (Udvardy, Giles, and Mitzanze 2003: 79; see Errington 1998, especially chapter 2). The issues are not a simple conflict between avaricious dealers and heritage crusaders. Roderick McIntosh (1996: 45–62) and Michel Brent (1996: 63–78) describe the “web of networks in which auction houses, art journals, laboratories, and museums contribute to service an obscure but scandalous form of commerce” (Schmidt and McIntosh 1996: 5). Colin Renfrew's (2000) book on loot and legitimacy focuses on illicit archaeological digs. However these objects are acquired—pillaged from excavations, chipped from shrine facades, lifted from temples, purchased from locals, dynamited off facades—cultural objects on the art market today have a murky provenance and are the products of illicit traffic, fiduciary transactions, the collusion of collectors and museums on a no-questions-asked basis.20 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (1998) implicates everyone from the museum visitor and the casual tourist to the indigenous seller and the wealthy collector, the museum curator and the scholar.
WHERE ARE THE VIGANGO?
Was the CSUF enterprise a successful repatriation? For the CSUF administration, absolutely: They got rid of the vigango. For the NMK, it was an unasked-for and dubious gift, while the Mijikenda still sit in the wings. Blowback about the vigango came from Kevin Brown, a BBC reporter stationed in Nairobi.21 He learned that Customs refused to release the crate of vigango until a tariff of 5,000,000 Kenya shillings (= US$47,000) was paid.22 Nobody has paid the tariff, so the vigango languish in a JKIA cargo shed.
The tariff was a big surprise! Import regulations now impose a tariff even on repatriated items, a policy shift that neither CSUF nor the Kenyan consulate in Los Angeles knew anything about. Vigango had got through before without duty, setting an easy precedent for future repatriations. (In the nick of time, the NMK sent a message to the DMNS not to ship their crated vigango.) The CSUF response was “Shame on Kenya.” CSUF officers were surprised by what they saw as a lack of transparency.23 The NMK expressed disinterest and said they had enough vigango on local display and in museum storage, and there were no funds to preserve more. The Department of Finance, through the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), refused to budge. Government agencies had more pressing priorities, like border security. Besides, the Mijikenda constitute only 5% of Kenya's population. The Giriama, especially, have been relegated to the economic and political backwater throughout much of the twentieth century (Brantley 1981: 152).
Purity Kiura, Director of Museums, States, and Monuments at the NMK, confirms that the CSUF shipment is stuck at the JKIA. The NMK cannot approach the KRA directly but must work through the Department of Culture. The two departments have exchanged letters but nothing has come of it.24 The new Director-General of the NMK, Mzalendo Kibunjia, is aware of the situation, having authorized previous repatriations. The governor of Kilifi County and other dignitaries from the coast visited the DMNS in August 2015. Freda Nkirote, the interim Director of Cultural Heritage at the NMK, suggests pressure on the district governor of Nairobi. The snarls of bureaucracy continue operating infallibly.
Initial interest by the BBC has lapsed. Articles in the Standard of Kenya headlined Mijikenda cultural appeals for the posts and questioned the government's rationale on imposing a tariff. “Kenya Elders Protest Taxation of Stolen Artifacts” one headline blared. Spearheaded by John Mitsanze, now a Mijikenda spokesman after leaving the NMK, the Mijikenda marched and petitioned.25 Mitsanze announced their demands at an August 2015 All Denominations Peace Conference in Nairobi.26 Mitsanze has sent the case to the Kenya Watch for Justice Implementation Committee. More recently, Nancy Ngowa, a lecturer at Pwani University, Kilifi, wrote an extensive newspaper article (2016) that mentions the CSUF efort, the DMNS collection, and local efforts to retrieve the vigango, not only from overseas museums but also from collections in Kenyan museums, and return them to their rightful owners (Fig. 19).
The vigango exist in the contexts of postmodern theory and global realities, conveying diverse meanings (see Kasir 1992), from the CSUF administration's equivocations, to Hollywood's chic vision of them as conversation pieces, to tourists who bought them as decorative pieces for display, to Mijikenda caretakers, and Kenyan bureaucrats. Vigango are palimpsests, each figure initially incised with cultural meanings of the Gohu elite but now inscribed with external discourses, practices, politics, and economics.
CSUF dreamed the vigango would be housed at Fort Jesus, Mombasa, a late sixteenth century Portuguese fort, now a heritage site and museum with a permanent exhibition on the Giriama group of the Mijikenda (Willis 2009: 238). Fort Jesus is near the farming communities where the vigango were carved. But if and when the vigango will get to Fort Jesus, or to the Mijikenda, is anybody's guess.
Mitch Avila, email to CSUF staff, January 16, 2014.
I wrote this essay as a cautionary tale. I have used real names rather than pseudonyms in accordance with the wishes of the people in Kenya I contacted. Linda Giles, John Mitsanze, and Monica Udvardy stressed publication of this essay, in a form that would give it exposure. Udvardy has reread the essay and its revisions, offering information and encouragement. She is now writing an extensive report on the vigango and the Mijikenda. Material is culled from reports provided by the CSUF Department of Anthropology. Most is unattributed. I would like to thank the following whom I think contributed to these reports, from which I have drawn freely: Nancy Jenner, Julie Perlin Lee, Brenda Bowser, Lisa Gonzalez, Jack Bedell, Justin Stewart, Joan Miller, Stacy St. James, Tannise Colly-more, Debra Redsteer, and the students in the Fall Semester 2008 Museum Studies class taught by Julie Perlin. I have also drawn on the email correspondences of Mitch Avila, Associate Dean, Humanities and Social Sciences, California State University, Fullerton. Monica Udvardy replied to all my queries, as did Linda Giles. I am very grateful to John Mitsanze for his insights and biography.
Samson Ngwono, a chemistry lecturer at CSUF tells me that “Mijikenda specifically refers to the nine tribes native to the Kenyan coast. Miji means village and kenda means nine” in Swahili (personal communication, February 3, 2016).
Many of the twenty-seven vigango repatriated by CSUF have a different village of origin, some may no longer exist, or may be difficult to find in a slash-and burn/herding village economy.
Monica Udvardy, personal communication, September 25, 2016.
Monica Udvardy, personal communication, September 25, 2016.
Ernie Wolfe III, personal communication, March 2, 2016.
Ernie Wolfe III, personal communication, March 2, 2016.
For over a decade Ernie Wolfe III traveled Africa's West Coast in search of hand-painted movie posters that originated in Ghana. His Extreme Canvas (2011) is a juxtaposition of traditional African art and modernity.
Monica Udvardy, personal communication, August 18, 2015.
Ernie Wolfe III, personal communication, March 2, 2016.
Monica Udvardy has been interviewed on BBC World's program Outlook, NPR's All Things Considered, Kenya National Television, as well as about fifty newspapers (Monica Udvardy, personal communication, August 3, 2015).
The Government of Kenya currently regards vigango repatriation as a low priority item, often ignoring repatriation. Both the DMNS and CSUF shared some of the procedures that brought them success: (1) soliciting a politician (or celebrity such as an athlete or dignitary) for assistance; (2) paying for crating and / or shipping costs; (3) providing publicity with Kenyan officials in attendance; and (4) giving Kenya most of the public credit for the repatriation.
Art collectors Laura and Joseph Ciaramella were sued by the Santa Monica Rent Control Board with a court-appointed arbitrator awarding the tenants and the board nearly $40,000 for art the tenants said they were forced to buy—memorial posts from Kenya as reported—as an end run around rent control and in exchange for lower rents (Los Angeles Times 1993).
Julie Perlin Lee, seconded from the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana to the anthropology department on a part-time basis, taught the course in museum anthropology and curated the exhibit. Joseph Nevadomsky photographed the vigango exhibit and the individual figures. The background information on provenance pieced together by Nancy Jenner, archaeology curation technician, would provide a record because the CSUF collection was not on Udvardy's list (Udvardy, Giles, and Mitsanze 2003: 569).
The 1,217-pound wooden crate featured slide-out drawers and special cushioning for each piece of the collection, a work of real craftsmanship.
Mitch Avila, email, January 15, 2014.
Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art and chairman of an Association of Art Museum Directors task force on archaeological and ancient artifacts, said institutions should evaluate repatriation claims on a case by case basis, with an eye toward returning objects even at the risk of alienating donors (Mashberg 2014). Mesa College in San Diego, the institution that received the other half of the Ciaramella donation and unaware of efforts made by the CSUF and the DMNS, plans to auction off its vigango.
Increasing publicity about tribal objects with a spiritual significance, including Native American artifacts like Hopi and Apache ceremonial items recently auctioned in Paris, has given a fresh impetus to the repatriation movement (Mashberg 2014).
The chair of the anthropology department at the DMNS, Stephen Nash, while willing to give up vigango and offer guidance to other museums on ethics, agreeing that these posts are spiritual and cultural property, felt stymied by institutional barriers to giving up objects or proper return mechanics (Mashberg 2014).
Kelvin Brown is a photographer and producer with twenty years of experience in journalism working for the BBC based in Nairobi and responsible for East and Southeast Africa news coverage. An email from Kelvin Brown opened the way to investigating what had happened to the vigango after they arrived in Nairobi. The only information up to then was that of the CSUF administration, which simply noted that there had been a hitch at Jomo Kenyatta International airport.
Kelvin Brown, personal communication, September 15, 2015.
One can understand the CSUF disillusionment. From November 2012, after the final agreement between CSUF, Congressman Ed Royce, and General Consul Wenwa Akinyo Odinga Oranga was signed, to August 2013, nearly twenty pieces of correspondence were sent by F. Owen Holmes, Jr., Associate Vice President (Public Affairs and Government Relations) requesting action by the consulate to pick up the crated vigango. No action was taken and the correspondence virtually stopped until CSUF agreed to bear all costs.
Dr. Purity Kiura said that the artifacts had no commercial value and questioned the rationale of imposing a tax. As she said, “Culture and heritage are the basis of any nation and we do not understand why tax should be imposed on such items.” She appealed to governors in coastal counties “to intervene and secure the vigango at the airport due to the huge tax placed on them” (Beja 2015).
John Baya Mitsanze has worked hard to raise public awareness in Kenya of the imposition of the tariff on vigango, bringing attention to the fact that the vigango from CSUF are in an airport warehouse. Mitsanze's efforts are the reason for the headlines in Kenyan newspapers. As a Giriama (Mijikenda), Mitsanze worked with Linda Giles and Monica Udvardy collecting data on the vigango and as a strong advocate of cultural heritage escorted journalists into the field and has been interviewed by them about missing artifacts.
Mitsanze took part in a conference workshop on bringing African Traditional Religion into the Kenyan school curriculum.