An Ethnography of the African Art Trade

Wooden vigango statuesMonica Udvardy from the University of Kentucky is involved with the repatriation of stolen vigango statues from US museums, to their owners in Kenya. Vigango are funerary statues which are typically removed (with or without the permission of the owners) from hillsides in Kenya, into a thriving local art market, and on to North American museums. Her story involves field ethnography, teaching, activism, and the ethics of both anthropology and business. More importantly, it raises questions about how established antiquities laws are used to protect the often poor farmers who create and erect the statues in the first place. Udvardy as an ethnographer who began her involvement with the Mijikenda in the 1980s, and actually photographed statues which were later stolen. Two of these statues turned up in US museum collections in the 1990s.

Wooden vigango statues are typically three to five feet high, and are created by the Mijikenda people of Kenya as memorials to their ancestors. They were created both traditionally, and as Udvardy’s research describes, in modern times. In other words, they are living and breathing expressions of Mijikenda culture.

By the 1980s, a market for the statues was developed in the West. In response to financial incentives, statues began to show up in Mombassa markets, and from there entered the western art/antiquities world. How they got from the homesteads of their creators, and into the market was a matter for dispute until Udvardy documented that the two statues “donated” to American museums in the 1990s, were originally stolen from particular homesteads in Kenya in the mid-1980s.

There probably thousands of vigango statues which arrived in the west since the 1980s. The emergence of this market also correlated with an epidemic of vigango thefts from the typically poor villages where the statues were originally erected. By the 1990s, the statues were considered art, and marketed as such in the California art gallery of Ernie Wolfe and others.

There are a number of excellent resources available on the web about the trade in vigango statues, including a 2003 article by Udvardy and her colleagues in the American Anthropologist “Cultural Property as Global Commodities -The Case of Mijikenda Memorial Statues” at . More recently there have been major stories on NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, and other media outlets about how two American museums have dealt with the need to return looted statues, consistent with the requirements of international and national antiquities laws.

Providing a context of sorts are the protestations of the most important vigango dealer, Ernie Wolfe, from Los Angeles. Wolfe was interviewed in 2006 by Marvin Anderson, a reporter from the Black College Wire. Wolfe uses a mix of economic and anthropological language to justify the vigango trade. Irrespective of Udvardy’s evidence of routine theft from rural homesteads, Wolfe claims that the statues were abandoned as part of the slash and burn agricultural cycle. Therefore he reasoned, the statues had no economic value to the owners, and could be brought into the international art market. To complete his justification for the trade, he points out that with the introduction of modern medicine, the statues had lost their utility for healing.

However, Wolfe’s type of reasoning reflects an overly simple understanding of property rights rooted in utility and the marketplace. Both traditional and modern law recognize that some things are sacred, and therefore cannot and should not be traded. For example, headstones from Arlington National Cemetery are off-limits from the marketplace. And as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently discovered, so are some ancient statues recovered in Italy. The victims in Kenya of such theft are of course are much less powerless than the Italian government. But under Kenyan and American law, vigango statues stolen from Mijikenda homesteads have similar legal protection.

One thought on “An Ethnography of the African Art Trade

  1. And see, here again we have the “culture=stuff” equation, where something has value only if that value is monetary. It’s a similar argument driving the theories of the aforementioned Harvard/MIT Economists, and feeds into the obsession with Cool Stuff. Culture is not just material culture–material culture is a possible window into culture, but is not the be-all, end-all. Archaeologists and folklorists deal with material culture insofar as it can point to action and meaning, not because that it is all that is important about human existence.

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