Culture shock

Do stolen sacred objects experience culture shock?

EIn the early gray and 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 a kind of culture shock returning to the obviously consumerist culture of the United States – I felt a little out of place, a little out of place, in this world of gourmet food and endless shopping.

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

Over the past decade, I have worked to repatriate ancestral cemeteries 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 death. The Vigango are not “art”. The Mijikenda believe that the vigango is the embodiment of the soul of every deceased person.

Mijikenda elders live in a sacred forest where these Vigango are protected. Steve Nash

SSoon, 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.

Jhis particular visit to Kenya, however, brought me something of a shock and a new way of looking at things.

On this trip, I traveled with freelance photographers working on a report for a major media outlet. 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.)

OThat 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 entering a morgue. In fact, I had a stomach ache.

I struggled to accept that after all the documented harm that has been caused to the Mijikenda by the theft of their ancestors, there was still such a collection within an 80km radius of the Mijikenda homelands. 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.

Jhis particular collector clearly believes he is doing the right thing in 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.

Learn more about vigango’s repatriation, from the archives: A Curator’s Search for Justice.

FFor me, it was striking how the vigango in his collection were totally out of their cultural context. I could tell that Denver’s vigango’s were well maintained, cataloged and professionally curated. But the vigango are meant to decay into the landscape, like the totem poles of the northwest coast. They are supposed to be at home, with their loved ones.

My the initial feelings of shock and judgment on this particular collection were self-righteous; on reflection, I could see the hypocrisy. The DMNS vigango were 10,000 kilometers from home in a very different cultural context before we repatriated them.

I felt like I had walked into a morgue. In fact, I had a stomach ache.

OWhich vigango experienced the most culture shock: those from Denver or those from the private collection in Kenya?

RGetting around vigango, whether from the United States or closer to home, is more complicated than it seems at first glance, and not only because of the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost for proper care during shipment. Vigangos are not supposed to move once erected. The Mijikenda know very well that the displacement of a dedicated vigango causes harm to the family, the farm and the community. Harvests fail. People and animals get sick. Social structures and mores are collapsing.

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

Jhe National Museums of Kenya, Kilifi County Government, Mijikenda elders and others are trying to design and fundraise for an outdoor center near their home country in which to display repatriated vigango in a safe manner , respectful and acceptable. I hope all vigango eventually find their way back to these safe spaces, 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, airplanes are also liminal vessels, creating a sense of disorientation through the rapid transition from one world to another. The vigango’s journey is meant to be spiritual and temporal; it is not meant to be physical or geographical.

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

More than 50 vigango are in this private collection in Kenya. Steve Nash

Jhe journey I brought home mirrors exactly the journey imposed on the vigango when it was stolen three decades ago: from farms near Kilifi to Mombasa, then Nairobi, and all the way to the United States. I went on my trip of my own free will and still experienced culture shock. 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 cultural and liminal state torn apart.

VSCulture shock is real and can be a useful way to help explain what the vigango, and therefore the Mijikenda, have gone through over the past decades and continue to go through today. After the first flight of vigango, what was once familiar and easy for the Mijikenda became unfamiliar, difficult and even existentially threatening.

SSometimes the way back isn’t easy, it’s shocking.