DENVER (CBS4)– Villagers in Kenya are certain their bad luck is changing now that some special artifacts in Denver are being returned to their rightful owners.
The artifacts, called vigango, have traveled thousands of miles and spent decades under wraps at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science but finally they are on their way back to where they belong.
“I know it will be a very emotional reunion with their spirits because they call them the spirits. And in fact they say the spirits are now ready to receive them back home,” said Alex Ole Magelo, a Kenyan official.
Museums across the country have been filled with these totems. The villages where they belong have felt their loss for years. The hand-carved totems are created to protect a village.
“The good news is that they believe when they erect these an ancestor who has passed on comes to inhabit the actual structure itself,” said Dr. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, DMNS’s curator of anthropology.
The thought is that a deceased loved one comes back in spirit inside the totem to watch over a community. Returning the totems to their homeland offers promise and hope to a village.
“I know for them they will have that feeling that their fortunes are back,” said Ole Magelo.
Museum staff will carefully pack the items to return them so they can once again watch over those who put such importance in their presence.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office shared the following information about the totems in a news release:
Although the Museum began the process to return the vigango five years ago, a breakthrough was finally reached in late 2013 with the assistance of Mayor Hancock and Councilman Brooks. Through the Sister Cities Program, Denver representatives helped negotiate a repatriation agreement with Alex Ole Magelo, the Nairobi City County Assembly Speaker.
“Denver is honored to return these sacred items to their rightful homes in Kenya,” Mayor Hancock said. “We are also grateful to Sister Cities for their role in helping us broker the return of these items to our friends in Kenya and in continuing to help us build relationships across the globe that make a difference in all of our communities.”
After being shipped to Kenya, the statues will be stored at the National Museums of Kenya, which has agreed to facilitate the statues’ return to their source communities.
“It is the Museum’s hope that their return will bring healing to the families and communities that have suffered from their absence,” said Dr. Stephen Nash, chair of the Anthropology Department at the Museum.
The vigango were created by the Mijikenda, who live along Kenya’s east coast. Vigango are carved wooden statues between 3- and 9-feet-tall that depict abstract human faces and are erected as memorials to revered elders by members of the Gohu Society. Members of the Gohu Society believe the vigango are living objects that hold the spirits of departed elders, an incarnation of the dead. Vigango bring luck and prosperity as the dead elders intercede to bring good tidings to the family who made them and the community as a whole.
In the 1960s, vigango began to enter the international art market. Hundreds were stolen in the ensuing decades, then sold in Europe and the United States. In the United States alone, more than 400 vigango are held in at least 21 museums. In 1990, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science was contacted by a California art dealer, offering to donate 30 vigango on behalf of actor Gene Hackman and film producer Art Linson. The vigango have been safely stored and preserved at the Museum since that time and have never been displayed.
The Mijikenda community and religious leaders strongly object to the removal of vigango. Villagers spend up to twice Kenya’s average per capita annual income to make the statues for their dead relatives. They speak of ill fortune and angry spirits who come visiting after the memorials have been removed. There are no current legal instruments that enable Mijikenda communities to reclaim their stolen vigango from museums. Only several dozen vigango have been returned to date.
In 2008, when administrators at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science learned about the vigango thefts, they tried to begin a dialogue with Kenyan officials. Although not legally bound to return the vigango, curators and administrators felt it important to return the cultural items that belonged to the entire community rather than individuals, and whose sacred character was so clear. Deepening the city’s relationship with the Kenyan community was also a factor.
“Returning the sacred vigango is about more than just the repatriation of artifacts,” Councilman Brooks explained. “It symbolizes the renewed connection between Denver and our sister city of Nairobi. The relationship that we are forging today will bear fruit for years to come.”
“This was a long and difficult process,” said Dr. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the Museum’s curator of anthropology. “But it was worth it. Museum stewardship today is not just about things but also people, and not just about preserving static cultural objects but also contributing to the cultural survival of living communities.”