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Beneath the Mask: further thoughts on African Art and the Western Imagination
There are now numerous Western museums that house collections of African art, and probably thousands of private individuals who have built up their own collections. But old pieces of African art, which the museums and collectors seek, are limited in number. That is one reason why the fakers, mentioned above, can find a ready market. Sadly, though, other pieces are still being stolen from African to satisfy western greed.
On 19th January, 2007, French customs officers at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, discovered a cache of archaeological items that had been smuggled out of Mali, contrary to Malian law. The 669 items, comprised of stone and metal objects, were in transit to America where dealers were expecting to sell them on
Some of the confiscated items
to collectors. Many of the objects dated from the Neolithic period, though some of the flint arrowheads were probably much, much older. They had been shipped from Bamako, the Malian capital, in nine packets and, on their accompanying paperwork, were described as “handcrafted objects”. According to one customs officer at the airport, “Since 2004 we have observed regular traffic in this kind of contraband. There is a big market and we are pretty sure that these items, which had been neatly sorted and were of very high quality, had been pre-sold.”  It seems that the French officials had also discovered two similar large finds of archaeological items from Niger in March, 2004, and December, 2005. The 2005 find included over 5,000 flint arrowheads and 90 carved stone artifacts, some of which were more than 5,000 years old.
In 2004 it is believed that a Cameroonian woman tried to take two Nigerian stone monoliths, known as Akwanshi, into France, claiming that they were from Cameroon and of no commercial value! Monoliths of this type have been well documented in the past.  The Akwanshi, which had been stolen by poachers from Cameroon, were eventually returned to the Nigerian Government in 2009.
In 2010 the World Archaeological Congress issued a declaration regarding the theft and desecration of Africa’s rock art. Five years earlier Kofi Annan, the United Nation’s head, had said, “The rock art of Africa makes up one of the oldest and most extensive records on earth of human thought. Yet, today, Africa’s rock art is severely threatened.” In the mid 1980’s I travelled across the Sahara and marveled at the pictures that I saw depicted on rocks throughout the area. It appears that, today, other tourist may not be so lucky.  Not only are these painting great works of art, but, as Kofi Annan so perceptively explained, they also offer an insight into the minds of our ancestors. 
But, perhaps the saddest thefts are those that have been committed against the Giriama people of Kenya. When male members of the Gohu Society die it is customary to carve wooden representations of the deceased, which are then placed on their grave. These carvings, called vigango (singular kigango), have often been referred to as “the art form of East Africa”. In 1985 American anthropologist Monica Udvardy photographed Kalume Mwakiru standing next to two vigango which had been erected over the graves of his two brothers. According to Dr Udvardy, “These statues are the tangible link between the living and the dead, and must be honoured through animal sacrifices and libations. The Gohu believe that failure to perform these rituals or, worse yet, removing vigango from their erection sites – an act the Giriama have an explicit prohibition against – will trigger the curse of the ancestral spirit.” Shortly after the two vigango were photographed somebody stole them from their site.
The 1985 photo of Kalume Mwakiru and statues honouring his brothers
By chance, in 1999, Dr Udvardy travelled to Philadelphia to take part in a conference on East African culture, where she talked about the missing statues. The next speaker was fellow anthropologist Linda Giles from Illinois State University, who showed slides of her University Museums’s collection of 38 vigango. One slide showed on of Kalume’s missing statues.
Museum collection of vigango. (Not Illinois).
Udvardy and Giles immediately agreed that action was needed to return the missing statue to Kenya. They also realized the second statue could be in another American collection and so began scouring through relevant catalogues. In fact, they found that there were at least 350 vigango in American museums, something that surprised and annoyed the staff at the National Museum of Kenya. These carvings were not remnants of an ancient past; they were objects that still held deep meanings for many Kenyans today. And Udvardy and Giles did find the second carving, this time in the museum collection of the Hampton University of Virginia. Whilst Illinois State University was happy to return their statue, the trustees of Hampton University were, at first, reluctant to do so. On 8th September, 2006, they issued this statement:
Following a thorough investigation into the legitimacy of the acquisition of the Giriama memorial statue (kigango statue) in question, Hampton University has found the item was legally acquired and will remain the property of Hampton University.
"Hampton University reviewed the existing documentation relating to the Giriama memorial statues and found that the vigango statues were legally acquired through the efforts of International Business Management, Inc. of Culver City, California. While saddened to learn of the high occurrence of theft among ancestral sculptures in Kenya, it is the university's position that since the artifacts were legally acquired, they remain the property of Hampton University. If additional evidence provides proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the statue was stolen then we will return it," stated vice president and general counsel Faye Hardy-Lucas.
Hampton University received the vigango statue as a gift from International Business Management, Inc. of Culver City, Calif., who purchased the statue from Ernie Wolfe, III, of Ernie Wolfe Galleries in Los Angeles, Calif.
"I am horrified and deeply saddened to learn that the kigango ancestor sculpture I purchased in good faith in Kenya, from a public, open-to-anyone curio store is now claimed to have been stolen before I purchased it, and it was subsequently donated to [Hampton University's] museum collection," said Wolfe. "I absolutely had no idea that this or any other object I purchased had been 'stolen'. Obviously, I would never have purchased any object whose ownership might have been in question.
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