Sunday, January 12, 2014

Denver Museum Repatriates Vigango

Three of the Denver objects
The long, slender wooden East African memorial totems known as vigango (pronounced vee-GON-go; the singular form is kigango) are creating a ethical crisis  for American museums. 
Some 20 institutions in the United States own about 400 of the totems, according to Monica L. Udvardy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky and an expert on Kenyan culture who has studied and tracked vigango for 30 years. She said that Kenyans believe that vigango are invested with divine powers and should never have been removed from their sites and treated as global art commodities. Kenyan officials have made constant pleas to have the objects sent back. But repatriating them takes far more than addressing a parcel. No federal or international laws prevent Americans from owning the totems, while Kenyan law does not forbid their sale. And the Kenyan government says that finding which village or family consecrated a specific kigango is arduous, given that many were taken more than 30 years ago and that agricultural smallholders in Kenya are often nomadic. The result is that museum trustees seeking legally to relinquish, or deaccession, their vigango have no rightful owners to hand them to.
Vigango are carved from a termite-resistant wood by members of the Mijikenda people of Kenya and erected to commemorate relatives and important village headmen. Notched and round-headed, they vary in length from four to nine feet and are dressed, served food and tended as living icons. Hundreds of vigango were bought or donated to museums in the 1980s and 1990s by collectors of African art, including some Hollywood luminaries.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science  received 30 vigango  as donations in 1990 from two Hollywood collectors, the actor Gene Hackman and the film producer Art Linson, bought from .  Now they are trying to give them back. 
“The process is often complicated, expensive and never straightforward,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “But just because a museum is not legally required to return cultural property does not mean it lacks an ethical obligation to do so.”The museum this month will deliver its 30 vigango [...] to the National Museums of Kenya. Officials there will choose whether to display the objects, hunt through the nation’s hinterlands for their true owners and original sites, or allow them to decay slowly and ceremoniously, as was intended by their consecrators. Whatever they opt to do, Kenyan officials say, sovereignty over the objects should be theirs and not in the hands of foreign museums. (The details of the transfer are still being negotiated.)[...] The Denver museum “passionately values” such objects, Mr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh said, but added,  “Collections should not come at the price of a source community’s dignity and well-being.”
These are quite valuable objects in the 'tribal art' trade. Vigango sold for perhaps $1,500 apiece in the 1980s, but they are now valued at upward of $5,000 and one fetched $9,500 at auction in Paris in 2012. The Denver Museum's vigango had come from the United States’ foremost dealer in vigango and other East African artifacts, Ernie Wolfe III of Los Angeles.
A brash, boar-hunting devotee of Africa, Mr. Wolfe has long acknowledged that he was a pivotal figure in making a market for vigango in the United States. He said in a telephone interview that the objects became popular in Hollywood in the 1980s. Along with Mr. Hackman and Mr. Linson, aficionados have included the actors Powers Boothe, Linda Evans and Shelley Hack. Mr. Wolfe stoutly defends collecting, selling and exhibiting the objects, saying he rescued them after they had spent their spiritual powers — been “deactivated,” as he puts it — and had been abandoned by their consecrators. He also said that Kenyan officials applauded his first presentation of vigango in the United States, at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979.
To date, only two vigango have been returned by American museums, one each by the Illinois State University Museum in Springfield and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

I would be very interested to know, looking at these posts, just what the original buyers saw in them, and what they did with them when they were in their homes.  Did the buy them for their artistic expressiveness (of what)? Or did they buy them as trophy pieces, or to brag about, or just because they were the fad of the time. And what made them give them up? 

 Tom Mashberg, Sending Artworks Home, but to Whom?', New York Times, January 3, 2014

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