Interrupting Veneration of the Ancestors: The Paradoxes of Commemorating the Return of Stolen Spirit-Statues in Kenya
Monica Udvardy (University of Kentucky)
Paper short abstract:
This paper analyzes the shifting meanings of two returned vigango, tall, memorial spirit-statues erected by the Kenyan Mijikenda peoples to incarnate deceased members of the Gohu secret society. Stolen decades earlier, found in the USA, and returned, local elders' debates about them are discussed.
Paper long abstract:
This paper analyzes the shifting meanings of vigango, tall, wooden memorial statues that are erected by the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya to incarnate deceased male members of the Gohu secret society. Since Kenyan independence, vigango have become popular objects on the global art market, and today are often stolen almost as soon as they are erected near homesteads. In 2007, my colleagues and I succeeded in returning two vigango that we had located in United States museum collections to the family who had originally installed them 20 years earlier at the edge of their rural, Kenyan coastal hinterland homestead. We witnessed the return of these statues, and recorded hours of animated conversation by Gohu and community elders about how properly to receive these incarnations of their deceased fraternal Gohu members. Because stolen vigango had never been returned to the Mijikenda, much less those that had spent their "lives" abroad, the elders were divided about whether the spirits of the returned vigango should be reanimated through reinstallation, as newly erected vigango are, or whether they should rest horizontally to symbolize a potential loss of their active spirit wrought by their global travels. This paper analyzes these debates, and new rituals invented, as they express Mijikenda elders' perceived changes in the meanings of these spirit-objects from the new "activities" they experienced through their global voyages to North America and back. It also contrasts the elders' perspectives with decisions made by National Museums of Kenya officials and regional politicians for commemorating the returned statues.