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Vigango tribe

vigango kenya mapOutsider art dealer discovers rare African Vigango totems

By Tracey O'Shaughnessy, Republican-American  May 17, 2007 found at 

CORNWALL, Conn. -- As an "outsider art" dealer, Kelly Gingras has discovered beautiful canvases in implausible places, but finding nine stunning vigango totems in a New York estate was as breathtaking as it was lucky. 

Vigango are sacred memorial statuettes carved by Mijikenda villagers living along Kenya's coast.

Over the years, thieves have robbed Mijikenda graveyards of hundreds of vigango and sold them for as little as $50. Many end up in posh European and American galleries, where they sell for up to 10 times that. When Gingras realized the totems she was handling were vigango, she called the estate manager immediately.



Interactive Feature: Solving a Kenyan Mystery

Marc Lacey (New York Times) reports on the case of the stolen vigango, statues put up in Africa to appease the spirits of the dead.

The Outsiders Art
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"I said, 'There's no way I can sell these,'" Gingras said.

Instead, she recommended returning the vigango to Kenya.

Brooke Allen, who owns the estate, agreed. At the end of this month, Gingras will return all nine vigango to the Kenyan government, a stunningly generous act at a time when Western looting of indigenous art has resulted in international imbroglios.

Monica Udvardy with a Vigango"I'm thrilled," said Monica L. Udvardy, a University of Kentucky anthropologist who has been in the forefront of an effort to return vigango to their rightful owners. Next month, just one of the vigango she has identified will be returned to Kenya, an effort that has taken 22 years. "What this means is that our efforts are working. The only thing that is going to stop this massive trade (in the relics) is by raising public awareness. This means that somebody's listening."

Four months ago, Gingras was asked to sell some items in the estate of the Lewis M. and Jay Presson Allen. The Allens were writers and Broadway producers who collected eclectic American and African art. Much of their collection was composed of raw, brutally brilliant "outsider art," in which Gingras specializes. Gingras happened to mention to estate representative Peter Jung that her next gallery show was centered on Africa. Intrigued, Jung noted that the Allens were avid collectors of African art and he suggested Gingras handle the sale of the bulk of their African collection.

Photo of vandelized hut that covered Vigango statuesPhoto of vandelized hut that covered Vigango statues 
Photo by John Mitsanze

While researching the slender, 3- to 4-foot wood-carved vigango (a plural word; the singular is kigango), Gingras came across newspaper articles explaining the massive theft of the objects from Kenya.

"When I realized what they were, we just had to give them back," Gingras said. "I just think it's wrong. They don't belong to us. I don't care if the law isn't passed yet, I think it should be passed. We know that we could sell them, but it's wrong."

Jung contacted the Kenyan embassy in Washington.

"We were adamant that they had to go back and that the whole thing had to be very legal and very official," he said.

When Gingras contacted Brooke Allen, she immediately agreed to return the vigango to Kenya. "Brooke was the first one to say, 'Let's show them as an educational endeavor at the gallery and then return them,'" Jung said.

It is unclear how the Allens obtained the vigango, but the couple lived in Nairobi, Kenya, during the 1960s and likely bought them there, Jung said.

Gingras ultimately contacted Kenya's ambassador to the United States, Peter N.R.O. Ogego, and told him she wanted to exhibit the vigango temporarily so she could bring students into her Kent Road gallery to emphasize the importance of not stealing indigenous artifacts. Then, she said, she wanted to return them to Kenya.

"He was so gracious," Gingras said. "He said, we would like to come to your gallery and give you an official hand-off ceremony." Gingras said Ogego was unaware of the existence of the Allens' vigango.

The wooden totems with triangular etchings are erected for members of a secret society, the "gohu." The varying heights of the totems refer to the varying ranks of the gohu.

The hand-off ceremony tentatively has been scheduled for June 24, 2007.

Hundreds of vigango totems have been stolen from rural homesteads and shipped to private collectors and art dealers in the United States and Europe. Udvardy estimates at least 400 are held in private collections and 19 U.S. museums.

Interpol, the international police organization, estimates the trade in non Western cultural property is now worth $4.5 billion a year, up from $1 billion a decade ago.

Vigango are particularly prized because East African art is rare. The bulk of African art comes from the central and western part of the continent. In the past two decades, Vigango have been part of exhibitions at esteemed American museums, including the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington, and the New York Center for African Art.

Although the nearest American translation for the roughly- hewn, rectangular wooden posts, with round heads and rectangular bodies, may be "tombstone," the Mijikenda regard them as memorials that incarnate the spirit of the deceased.

Increasingly, Kenya has lobbied for international legislation to protect the totems, in part because tribe members believe stealing the items can result in misfortune befalling family members of the deceased.

Last year, the Illinois State Museum agreed to return a Vigango stolen from a Kenyan family 20 years ago. But the museum still has 37 Vigango in its collection. The Kenyan government wants international protection to forbid further sale of vigango, Udvardy says. The Kenyan government recently passed legislation that labels them as ritual objects that are forbidden to be exported. It is still legal to sell vigango in the United States.

Udvardy speculates the Allens' vigango came from a Los Angeles gallery that sold the items to Hollywood celebrities like Linda Evans, Dirk Benedict and Gene Hackman. Udvardy would not name the gallery owner, but press reports identify him as Ernie Wolfe III, a prominent collector of African artifacts and owner of Ernie Wolfe Galleries in Los Angeles.

The International Herald Tribune reported three vigango appeared in the Sotheby's catalog for Andy Warhol's estate. The Allens' estate contained art work by Warhol, who was a friend of theirs.

read also Kenya-Vigango and Vigango back home

Vigango back home

For the last 22 years, a village along Kenya's picturesque coast has blamed its ill fortune on the theft of two memorial wooden statues known as vigango.

vigango statues (Picture: Okoko Ashikoye)



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