International Inventories Programme Kenya is taking stock of its missing cultural artefacts globally

IIP Group Image
© National Museums of Kenya

Among the Mijikenda people of Kenya, the wooden vigango effigies are erected as memorial posts honouring the dead. Standing up to nine feet tall, the vigango—plural for kigango—have for centuries played a crucial spiritual role in communities seeking to stave off misfortune and privation. Yet in the past few decades, art collectors and celebrities have pilfered hundreds of them, selling or donating them to museums worldwide.
 
For years, the process of returning the vigango, who has the authority to collect them, and where they should be housed has figured into the larger debate about repatriating Kenyan artefacts stored in cultural institutions worldwide.
 
Now more than ever, the discussion around the state of Kenyan cultural objects abroad and the gaps left by their absence has reached a tipping point. Currently, this discourse is being mediated by the International Inventories Program (IIP), a research and exhibition project sponsored by the Goethe-Institute and the German Federal Cultural Foundation that seeks to make a comprehensive inventory of Kenyan artefacts held in public institutions abroad. Launched in December 2018, the initiative brings together the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the Nairobi-based multi-disciplinary collective The Nest, and the German/French collective, SHIFT. Besides making an inventory of the missing items, the project also aims to develop relations with the institutions holding Kenyan objects; engage audiences in Kenya and Germany on the question of restitution; produce academic papers; and hold three public exhibitions.
 
The launch of the IIP in Kenya dovetails with a global reckoning that treasures removed from Africa—and other parts of the world—need to find their way to their countries of origin. The profile of these discussions was heightened after a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron reinvigorated calls for the return of looted African relics. Published by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy in November 2018, the study characterized the stolen collections as part of “a system of appropriation and alienation” that strips Africans of their “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity.”
 
Since then, government officials, journalists, and intellectuals have stepped up to the discussion, calling on Western museums to return treasured objects to their rightful owners. In July 2019, award-winning Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif brought to fore this issue when she resigned as a trustee of the British Museum citing, among other reasons, the institution’s “immovability” on matters including the restitution of cultural objects. The parley over returning sanctified items to Africa is also gradually moving beyond just artefacts to encompass archaeology, archival materials, along with the bones of ancestors, some of whose remains were collected as scientific specimens and anthropological artefacts by colonial forces.
 
Divergent thoughts. One goal.
 
The IIP project was conceptualized in 2015 after artists Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier of SHIFT started exploring the vacuum that would be created once African objects left European institutions. Their book, Letter to Lagat, which began as an exchange of letters with NMK, mediated on whether the repatriation of the articles would mean they “live on as a story and a memory” or whether it would mean “liberation for all concerned” from “an abusive relationship.”
 
Rittmeier says the book came out of a need to restart a dialogue around the corpus of African artefacts held globally. His own interest in the subject, however, began after visiting the Egyptian collection at the Louvre Museum in Paris when he was 18 years old. There, staring at royal statues and mummy portraits, he thought about why all these pieces were on display in France and not in Cairo.
 
“The Egyptian collection was so vast,” he says. “And I thought, something is wrong here.”
 
But while Rittmeier—and SHIFT to an extent—is concerned with the truancy of the objects from spaces in the global North, The Nest Collective and NMK are interested in what the absence does to memory and mind in the global South.
 
Jim Chuchu from The Nest Collective even frames the issue as less about access to the objects themselves and more about upholding the equity and “dignity” of African people. He says deaccession, or legally relinquishing the pieces, is essentially about rectifying a “criminal” act.
 
As part of their ongoing research, the IIP has as of July 2019 identified 15,000 cultural objects from Kenya held in 14 institutions in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These include ceremonial objects, weapons, cutlery, and other household items taken between the 1890s and 1980s, showing, Chuchu notes, “that the looting didn’t stop after the independence” of Kenya in 1963.
 
To define the debate around the disposition of art and cultural relics acquired as a result of colonialism, Chuchu says Western nations have “weaponized” the use of semantics. “Definitions are too heavily framed by the perpetrators of the crime,” he says. While children in the West can easily access these objects, “the language and reasoning used by European and American museums is: ‘Who are you? Who are you as an African to demand these objects?’”
 
While pressing for the restitution of the objects is a critical issue, Kenya’s national museum is also concerned with who has the right to receive them if and when they are returned. But the inaccessibility of the items and artworks to researchers and academics only perpetuates the omission in records over who created these items and where their present-day home should ideally be, says the coordinator of public programs at NMK Juma Ondeng’. Accessing and studying the objects could show the connections and trade between traditional communities and their way of life.
 
“Our civilization was disrupted,” Ondeng’ says. But “bringing back the cultural objects could inspire contemporary production. It could provide cultural grounding for young people’s artistic production.”
 
Heeding the outcry.
 
As the conversation around restitution reaches a crossroads, some countries and cultural institutions are paying heed to and acting on the protestations. In November 2018, Macron agreed to return 26 statues and regalia to Benin seized during France’s sacking of Abomey in 1892. In December 2018, the British Museum said it would return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, more than a century after British soldiers looted the priceless collection. In March 2019, two locks of hair cut from the corpse of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II by a British soldier were returned to Addis Ababa. In Germany, the 16 federal states agreed on a joint resolution to repatriate items taken during the country’s colonial era. Artists are also striking back against custodians of the art, with the bust of Nefertiti, for instance, clandestinely scanned in 3D without the permission of the New Museum in Berlin.
 
Museums are increasingly removing human remains from their collections too, as descendants argue their ancestors aren’t objects or “property” meant for display. For instance, London’s Natural History Museum in March 2019 sent 37 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains to Australia.
 
But where there’s progress, there’s still lack of headway too. For instance, while France has pledged to examine requests for African artefacts, cultural minister Franck Riester has contended nations shouldn’t just “focus on the sole issue of restitution.” In early July 2019, Christie’s auction house sold the 3000-year-old head of Tutankhamun for $6 million even though Egyptian authorities claimed it was stolen. Curators and benefactors also continue to put forward the argument that African museums do not have the resources and know-how to care for the items, especially in poor states where corruption remains rampant. And even where museums want to return objects like the vigango, they face exorbitant taxes at the final destination like Kenya—leaving the funerary posts decaying in customs warehouses.
 
Ondeng’ acknowledges these challenges but says the arguments around the capacity of African Museums still feel like “an insult. We made the objects. We know all the ways we should be treating them.”
 
Changing fortunes.
 
IIP members say that collective effort is need so that the conversation around the objects’ future inches forward.
 
Besides opening a dialogue with external stakeholders on the objects’ return, Ondeng’ says countries like Kenya also need to establish local legal frameworks that would allow the smooth transition of objects to the “actual makers of heritage.” Current museum systems, he adds, also replicate systems of colonialism and need to be decolonized and democratized as an avenue for deeper conversations around the intellectual, emotional, and cultural significance of restitution.
 
Rittmeier says it’s vital that this process of questioning “the place and future of artefacts is being documented, hence creating a repository of knowledge for future generations.”
 
Chuchu says we are at a pivotal moment in history where Africans—especially the young and tech-savvy—are agitating for change and demanding that past wrongs be corrected. To bring the issue closer to the hearts of many young Kenyans, The Nest Collective is looking to develop short films and virtual reality projects that are less didactic and more expressive of the loss and anger felt by many Africans.
 
“We don’t know who will win this or how these exchanges will eventually turn out,” Chuchu says, “but there’s a conversation and people all over the world are talking. So, let’s get in there as Africans and inch the discussion forward.”