EBarely on the gray, dreary morning of September 23, I landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, after a 36-hour journey from Kilifi on the Kenyan coast. As usual, I felt culture shock as I returned to America’s blatant consumer culture – felt a little out of place, a little offbeat, in this world of gourmet food and endless shopping.

Do ancestral spirits, I wondered, also feel culture shock?

On the past decade, I have worked to repatriate ancestral graves from American museums, or vigango (singular: kikango), to the Mijikenda tribes on the Kenyan coast northeast of Mombasa. The Mijikenda carve and erect vigango to honor esteemed members of their society after their death. The Vigango are not “art”. The Mijikenda believe that the vigango is the embodiment of the soul of each death.

The Mijikenda elders live in a sacred forest where these vigango are protected. Steve nash

SUnfortunately, local thieves and international art dealers established a vast network to steal and sell hundreds, if not thousands, of vigango from the 1970s to the 1990s. Well-meaning but often misinformed Americans then donated hundreds. from vigango to museums like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), where I work. As the meaning and purpose of vigango became clearer and the discussion of museum ethics evolved, curators and staff, including myself, began to work hard to make these objects to their owners and their homes.

This particular visit to Kenya, however, brought me something of a shock and a new way of seeing things.

OOn this trip, I traveled with freelance photographers working on a story for a major media outlet. With Jimbi Katana, a retired archaeologist, and Mijikenda himself, we toured the area and photographed the vigango in various settings – at the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa, in a steel cage erected in 2007 to protect two vigango returnees from a new theft, and in villages and farms where vigango have recently been erected. (To my surprise, the practice of kikango carving is still alive, if not necessarily well. Many Mijikenda rightly fear that their new vigango, and therefore their ancestors, will simply be stolen if they are erected.)

On day we photographed a collection of over 50 vigango belonging to a well-known European artist and collector in a coastal town not far from the homeland of Mijikenda. After a tour of the hotel complex from which he earns a living and exhibits his own works of art, the older man opened a locked garage, and there they were – dozens of vigango leaning against the wall with hundreds of works of art.

I I felt like I had entered a morgue. Indeed, I had a stomach ache.

I had a hard time accepting that after all the documented harm which happened to the Mijikenda from the theft of their ancestors, there was still such a collection within a 50 mile radius of the original Mijikenda lands. Oddly, our colleague from Mijikenda Katana seemed to feel it less, but he has known the collection for quite some time. It may have become an unpleasant fact for the Mijikenda to know that some vigango are in private collections like these.

This particular collector clearly believes he is doing the right thing in physically preserving the vigango, even in a locked shed. He said he feared these vigango would be destroyed if they were not protected by him. There is a long colonialist tradition that the collection of objects by Western museums is only good for science, culture, history and humanity; it is an old way of thinking which is fortunately changing.

Learn more about the repatriation of Vigango, from the archive: A Curator’s Search for Justice.

For me, it was striking how the vigango in his collection were totally out of their cultural context. I could argue that the Denver vigango were well maintained, cataloged and professionally preserved. But vigango are supposed to decompose in the landscape, like Northwest Coast totem poles. They are supposed to be at home, with their loved ones.

My the first feelings of shock and judgment on this particular collection were self-righteous; on second thought, I could see the hypocrisy. The DMNS vigango were 6,000 miles from home in a very different cultural context before we repatriated them.

I felt like I had entered a morgue. Indeed, I had a stomach ache.

Wwhich vigango has experienced the most culture shock: those in Denver or those in the private collection in Kenya?

RReturning Vigango, whether from the United States or closer to home, is more complicated than it seems at first glance, and not just because of the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost for treatments. appropriate when shipping. Vigango are not supposed to move once erected. The Mijikenda know full well that moving a devoted vigango harms family, homestead, and the community. The crops fail. People and animals get sick. Social structures and customs are unraveling.

So, many elders of Mijikenda do not want the vigango to be repatriated to their villages because the violations suffered by these sacred objects are so serious. The vigango are now powerful in every way, and the elders have no ceremonies to bring them back to their sacred forests and communities.

TKenya’s national museums, the Kilifi County government, Mijikenda alumni and others are trying to design and fundraise for an outdoor center near their home country in which to display the repatriated vigango in such a way. safe, respectful and acceptable. Hopefully all vigango find their way back to these safe spaces eventually, including the ones stacked in this garage.

VIgango are liminal objects – they exist in the transitional space between the spiritual and physical worlds, connecting ancestors and their descendants across space and time. In a way, planes are also introductory vessels, creating a sense of disorientation through the rapid passage from one world to another. The vigango journey is spiritual and temporal; it is not meant to be physical or geographic.

A collection of tall, slender wooden statues of varying heights rest against a wall.

Over 50 vigango are in this private collection in Kenya. Steve nash

The trip I brought home mirrors exactly the trip imposed on the vigango when it was stolen three decades ago: from farms near Kilifi to Mombasa, then to Nairobi and the United States. I made my trip of my own free will and still experienced culture shock. The vigango had no such choice. They have been stolen, torn from their cultural context, packaged and shipped, displayed and sold to the highest bidder – their torn cultural and liminal state.

VSCulture shock is real and can be a useful way to help explain what the vigango, and therefore the Mijikenda, have been through over the past decades and continue to experience today. After the original vigango theft, what was once familiar and easy to the Mijikenda has become unknown, difficult, and even existentially threatening.

SSometimes the way back is not easy, it’s shocking.


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