US museum returns sacred ancestral memorial statues to Kenya

NAIROBI, Janet Murikira and Kate Bartlett (dpa)- A US museum on Monday returned 30 artefacts considered sacred to an ethnic group in Kenya, as calls mount for galleries and collectors in the West to repatriate cultural heritage looted from Africa.
Some of the wooden statues, known as vigango, were given to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado by Hollywood actor Gene Hackman who had collected them.

Denver Museum
Denver Museum

The museum sent them back to Kenya earlier this month and they were handed over to elders from the Mijikenda community at a ceremony in the coastal city of Mombasa on Monday.
"It's a big milestone for the people of Kenya, especially the people ... who are the rightful owners of these precious artefacts," Culture Minister Amina Mohamed said at the event.
The statues have spiritual significance for the community as they are carved in memory of deceased elders and placed in a shrine from which they are not meant to be removed.
"The value of cultural artefacts is sadly converted into money and not pride, honour and cultural identity of our people," Mohamed said.
Joseph Karisa Mwarandu, an elder and secretary general of the Malindi District Cultural association, told dpa that in the 1980s the statues gained popularity among collectors in the West.
Thieves who didn't understand their cultural significance began stealing them and flogging them to dealers.
The history of the vigango differs in several respects to other cultural heritage looted from Africa in that they were taken in the post-colonial period and they are not necessary very old. It is unclear when the returned wooden carvings were made.
Mwarandu said such figures fetch thousands of dollars on the international market.
Last year, Kenya said that 181 national artefacts were being housed in foreign museums.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron made a surprise announcement that art treasures from France's former colonies in Africa would be repatriated within five years.
Germany has also started returning items to Africa, mainly its former colony of Namibia. Earlier this year the German Historical Museum decided to return a stone known as the Cape Cross Column.
The country has also returned a bible and a whip belonging to Hendrik Witbooi - a leader of the Nama clan and a Namibian national hero - that was stored for years in a museum in Stuttgart.

Monday, July 29th 2019
Janet Murikira and Kate Bartlett (dpa)

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