Theft of Sacred Vigango Angers Kenyan Villagers ; the Memorial Totems Are Increasingly Being Stolen to Fuel Western Demand for African Art

Article excerpt

Corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are looting sacred memorial statuettes carved by villagers living along Kenya's coast.

Hundreds of vigango totems have been stolen from rural homesteads and shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private collectors and art dealers in the United States and Europe, anthropologists have discovered.

Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor from the University of Kentucky, and Linda Giles, formerly of the University of Illinois, have calculated that at least 400 vigango are held in private collections and in at least 19 museums in the US.

Their findings match earlier investigations by British anthropologist David Parkin, an expert on Kenya's coastal tribes, who noted what he termed "the disturbing acquisition of vigango by art dealers and others in the Western world."

The thefts, researchers and antiquities officials in Kenya say, are being carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat wallets and smooth talking of traders operating for overseas collectors. It's part of a booming trade in non-Western cultural property that's now worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up from $1 billion a decade ago, according to Interpol estimates.

The vigango are offered at $300 to $800 in Kenya, but studies have found them valued at up to $5,000 in US museum catalogs. However, central to the belief system surrounding vigango is the prohibition against them ever being moved.

"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief of these people," says Ms. Udvardy. "It would be like us stealing our grandfather's tombstone from on top of his grave, or our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."

Over the past 20 years, the statuettes have been presented in scores of exhibitions, including those held at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the New York Center for African Art.

Several permanent exhibitions of African art, including at the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, have opened since 2000.

Private collectors are keen to keep up, and dealers in Africa are lining up to supply their appetite.

The Monitor found four vigango on sale in the coastal town of Mombasa, echoing claims by Udvardy and Dr. Giles, who identified traders in Mombasa and the capital Nairobi who do not display the totems openly but will happily show prospective buyers back-room supplies.

This was confirmed on separate visits to two Nairobi craft shops by the Monitor.

Earlier investigations by Amini Tengeza of National Museums of Kenya, and British scholar Kate Parsons found several statuettes on display in tourist hotel lobbies.

Impact of the thefts on villages

Villagers who spend up to twice Kenya's average per capita annual income to make the statues for their dead relatives talk of ill fortune and angry spirits who come visiting after the relics are removed. …

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