During the 1980s, Coastal Kenya experienced the largest heist of ancestral artifacts in history. Over 300 wooden Vigango statues were taken from the sacred grounds of several Mijikenda tribes. These 4-foot wooden statues were stolen and sold to western tourists and international art collectors. Since then, the Vigango statues have been discovered in private art collections and museums throughout Europe and the United States.
A majority of those Vigango pieces in circulation were sold by art dealer Ernie Wolfe III, who was accused by the New York Times in 2006 of being a prime suspect to the sale of stolen Vigango statues. Although hundreds of the statues which he sold remained in circulation, Wolfe III mentioned making efforts to stop further sales of newer Vigango statues. Much work has been made by American anthropologists Linda Giles, Monica Udvardy, and John B. Mitsanze to repatriate the looted statues back to Kenya.
The Mijikenda culture consists of nine tribes related to the Bantu ethnic groups of Kenya. Other Kenyans have derogatorily referred to the Mijikenda people either as the ‘Nyika’ or ‘Nika,’ meaning ‘bush people.’ This prejudice may be why their sacred statues may have been targets for looting, along with the pressures of crushing poverty. There are over 30 sacred Kaya forests that are used for prayer by the Mijikenda.
Vigango statues are created from the wood these sacred forests provide. The wood is resistant to termites and very dense. The statues stand 4 feet (1.22 meters) tall and have unique carved triangle etchings that symbolize abstract forms of identity that once bestowed the deceased Mijikenda elder they represent.
The purpose of the Vigango’s creation is to incarnate the spirits of dead male Gohu elders who held significant respect and immense responsibility within the Mijikenda tribal community. It is the secretive Gohu society of men who are responsible for the construction of Vigango statues.
It is customary for a family to commission a member of the Gohu to create a Vigango statue of their respected male elder a week after death. The sculptures appear two dimensional in their depiction of revered elders of significance, but in their simplicity, a plethora of complex identities are shaped with each individual Vigango statue. This ritual is often followed by a festive meal and a family gathering.
These statues also act as liaisons of communication for living community members to ask advice from wise elder spirit ancestors. The Vigango statues were said to aid in advice regarding plague, famine, and drought. Because of their essential role in the Mijikenda tribal community, Gohu are usually placed in the center of their town or near the current chief’s homestead. However, it is believed that Vigango’s advice can only be heard by those related to the people who have passed.
Ernie Wolfe III mentioned that the statues are sometimes left behind when a village relocates to another fertile region. Once the village has settled, it is up to the tribe to erect smaller statues carrying no carvings, known as Vibaos, to take the place, power, and spiritual connectivity that make the abandoned Vigango statues powerless. If this ritual is not performed, the spirits of the elders, along with their enchanted magic, remain alone and isolated in the region no longer inhabited by their people.
But the belief of deactivated Vigango statues being replaced by Vibao may be subject to scrutiny due to the controversy of Wolfe III’s own collection. In another account mentioned by the New York Times, the anthropologist Udvardy believes that Wolfe III had misinterpreted the situation and that Vigango are to forever remain in the land they were erected.
Whichever is the truth, the fact remains that the theft and displacement of these powerful spirit vessels result in their wrath towards whoever steals, purchases, and acquires them. To carry a Vigango statue is both a blessing and a curse. And those who are cursed suffer the most.
Sources: B. B Wagner