My attention has been drawn to an interesting article entitled “Looted memorial statues returned to Kenyan family” (Text as pdf file) by Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles which appeared in SAFE (Saving Antiquities For Everyone) that demonstrates in an abundant way the above title which in a normal world would be self-evident but in the world of antiquities appears to be contested by some Western European and US American writers; they even argue that Africans are not yet ready or developed enough to recover their cultural objects which were stolen/looted by Europeans and are now adorning Western museums or are in depots.
Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles have shown through their efforts and success in securing the return of the stolen sacred memorial statuettes (“vigango”, singular “kikango”) to Kenya that not all Westerners share the immoral, arrogant, illegal and opportunistic position that stolen/looted African cultural objects are better served by being in European and American museums. These sacred memorial statuettes, carved by Mijikenda villagers living along Kenya’s coast in honour and remembrance of their departed relatives are stolen and sent to Europe and America. It shows how far the Western world will go in its disrespect of the religion and religious beliefs of others. The anthropologists could inform all those concerned that these memorial statuettes are very important for the mental tranquillity of the societies where the vigango are found serving as reminders of the link between the living and the dead; they have social and religious functions. How will the living pour libations and perform other acts of remembrances when the symbols for remembrance are stolen and sent abroad?
The two scholars were able to convince the Illinois State University Museum to agree to repatriate two memorial statuettes. Hampton University Museum, Virginia, which had at first refused to return a memorial statute in its collection changed its position and agreed to repatriate. It appears though that the University still has a considerable number of the stolen items in its museum.
This successful case of repatriation is significant as far as restitution of African cultural objects is concerned. As readers know, apart from Egypt and Ethiopia, hardly any African country can report any significant case of restitution of cultural objects from European and American institutions in recent times. The case of the Benin Bronzes is notorious for the sheer arrogance and contempt many European museums and individuals feel entitled to display, even though the Oba, King of Benin (the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now part of Nigeria, not to be confused with the Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey) has recently renewed the demand for the return of some of these Bronzes.
The welcome given to the return of the memorial statuettes in Kenya, with speeches, ceremonies and dances, is part of the indication of the attachment of the peoples of Kenya and Africa generally, to their cultural objects. Do we really need to tell Europeans and Americans that these objects were not made for their museums and private residences? There are still western intellectuals and professors who still believe they have a God-given right and duty to determine the location and fate of African cultural objects. They believe they are entitled and bound to take cultural objects they consider significant, no matter their functions in the African society. Hence funeral memorials, carefully placed on the burial grounds of relatives, are stolen and sent to the West to be placed in museums and private homes.
According to reports, there must be hundreds of these objects in Europe and America. How do those who never tire of preaching about human rights reconcile this sacrilege with the religious rights of the Africans concerned?
The success of Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles encourages us to believe that there are many in Europe and America who are not satisfied with the current situation whereby Europeans and Americans are holding thousands of stolen/looted African religious and cultural objects and pour scorn on demands to return some. We are even told we should be happy that these objects are in Europe. Were they returned, it is added, these objects would be stolen. The Europeans and Americans who stole our cultural objects now refuse to return them because we, the Africans, would steal our cultural objects. What a world!
Udvardy and Giles seem to have taken the principled position that stolen cultural items should be returned to their lawful owners. They have not, unlike some, adopted the view that it would be right to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to the Greeks but not to return the Benin Bronzes to the people of Benin (Edo), Nigeria.
Udvardy and Giles underscore the importance of the media in attempts to recover stolen/looted artefacts: “At least fifty special interest blogs and websites have discussed the issue from the perspectives of art history, archaeology, African Studies, and cultural anthropology.
The media attention has raised general public awareness about the devastating impact on local communities due to the widespread global marketing of African cultural heritage.
There are also indications that the media attention has affected other African art dealers”
The struggle to recover stolen/looted African cultural artefacts will not disappear whether some like it or not. We should concentrate on finding solutions such as described in the article, ”Looted memorial statues returned to Kenya Family” in SAFE http://www.savingantiquities. See the article by Mike Pflanz, “Theft of sacred vigango angers Kenyan villagers”http://www.csmonitor.com See also the excellent video “Closer to Home: Repatriating Kenya’s Vigango, http://www.dailytitan.com/closer_to_home_repatriating_kenya_s_vigango
Westerners must finally accept that the stealing, directly or indirectly, the cultural objects of others, constitutes a violation of their human rights and in the case of funeral objects such as the “vigango”, a violation of their religious rights. The greed of some for exotic art cannot be placed above the human rights of others.
Kwame Opoku. 10 January, 2009.