Unfortunately, local thieves and international art dealers established a vast network to steal and sell hundreds, if not thousands, of vigango from the 1970s through the 1990s. Well-meaning but often misinformed Americans then donated hundreds of 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 return 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 looking at things.
During this trip, I traveled with freelance photographers who work on a report for a major media. With Jimbi Katana, a retired archaeologist, and Mijikenda himself, we toured the area and photographed the vigango in a variety of settings – at the Fort Jesus museum in Mombasa, in a steel cage erected in 2007 to protect two repatriated vigango to be robbed again, 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 thus their ancestors, will simply be stolen if erected.)
One 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 the Mijikenda. After a tour of the resort where he makes a living and exhibits his own 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 felt like I had walked into a morgue. In fact, I had a stomach ache.
I found it difficult to accept that after all the documented harm that has been caused to the Mijikenda by the theft of their ancestors, there is still such a collection within a radius of 80 km around the native lands of the Mijikenda. Curiously, our colleague 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 found in private collections like these.
This particular collector clearly believes he is doing the right thing by physically preserving the vigango, even in a locked shed. He said he feared that these vigango would be destroyed if not protected by him. There is a long colonialist tradition of believing that the collection of objects by Western museums is only good for science, culture, history and humanity; it’s an old way of thinking that is thankfully changing.