9 Statues Uprooted From Africa Head Home
by ROBIN POGREBIN
For some two decades the nine carved statues were displayed in the Park Avenue apartment of the producer Lewis M. Allen and the screenwriter Jay Presson Allen. Tall and slender with rounded heads, the postlike figures seemed more like exotic conversation pieces than relics with a religious purpose, the Allens’ daughter, the writer Brooke Allen, recalls.
Yesterday all nine wooden statues were formally handed over to the Kenyan government in a ceremony at the United Nations. Eventually they will go on display at the Nairobi Museum.
Ranging from four to six feet tall, the objects, known as vigango, were looted in recent decades from the burial sites of the rural Mijikenda people on the Kenyan coast. Such figures are carved and posted at the graves of high-ranking members of a secret society called the Gohu, and the Mijikenda believe that bad luck will ensue if they are removed.
Alerted to their significance recently, Ms. Allen, the couple’s heir, decided that they should go back to Kenya.
“I spent a lot of time in Africa during my younger years, and I feel it gave me so much,” Ms. Allen said in an interview. “I feel very strongly about these things being returned.”
Asked whether her parents had been aware of their significance, she said, “I don’t think they knew.” Nor could she recall how they purchased the statues, although she estimated that it was in the early 1980s and said she doubted that her parents paid much for them.
Valued at $10,000 each today on the open market, vigango have often been looted from graveyards in Kenya, making their way into collections in the United States and Europe. Experts estimate that at least 400 are held in the collections of individuals and museums, including at least 19 museums in the United States alone.
Kelly Gingras, a Connecticut art dealer, discovered the statues at the Allens’ New York estate sale in January. (Mr. Allen, the producer of movies and hit Broadway shows like “Annie” and “Master Class,” died in 2003. Ms. Allen, who wrote the screenplays for films including “Funny Lady” and “Just Tell Me What You Want,” died last year.)
Ms. Gingras obtained permission from Brooke Allen to display them at her gallery in Cornwall Bridge, Conn., the Insiders/Outsiders Art Gallery, in a show called “All About Africa” that opened on May 5.
When the dealer researched the totems, she realized that they had been stolen, although she could not tell from precisely where. Her Internet search of “vigango” found many Web sites seeking the return of the totems to the Mijikenda people.
Ms. Allen said she immediately agreed to return the artifacts but also thought it was important for the show to proceed so that people could learn about them. In the meantime she and Ms. Gingras — along with Peter Jung, another private dealer — set about making inquiries on how they might be returned.
“It took us four months to figure out how to get them home,” Ms. Gingras said.
They were aided by Charles Stith, a former United States ambassador to Tanzania who is now the director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center.
“The totems belong to the Kenyan people, and they need to be returned,” Mr. Stith said in an interview. “Trade in illegally acquired African artifacts is a huge problem, and it’s got to stop.”
Mr. Stith estimated that the illicit trade in African artifacts was worth a half-billion dollars a year. “In terms of monetary value they’re priceless,” he said. “They are part of the national patrimony of the country. They really are a symbolic representation of the connection these people have to the past.”
“Often, when the family has celebratory moments, they will gather at the grave site where the family is,” he said. “And when there is a major family crisis, they will meet around the vigango. It’s a way of reminding themselves that, whatever the differences, we are still family.”
Mr. Stith delivered the statues yesterday afternoon to Peter Ogego, the Kenyan ambassador to the United States.
Interviewed at the handover ceremony, Mr. Ogego said that he had contacted all of the museums in the United States that are known to have vigango in their collections, but that “not all art institutions are willing to surrender them.”
“Our argument is simple: They’re not supposed to be uprooted from the grave,” he said. “Ipso facto, they are wherever they are illegally.”
The Illinois State Museum in Springfield, which has 37 vigango, recently returned one after being contacted through the National Museums of Kenya by family members who had proof that the sculpture belonged to them. “It had been documented by an anthropologist that it had indeed been stolen,” said Bonnie W. Styles, director of the Illinois State Museum.
Asked whether the museum would consider returning others, Ms. Styles said, “You would want to be certain that you have a request and it is a legitimate request.”
If the artifacts go to an African museum rather than a family plot, she said, “I’m not convinced that’s any better than us holding them here.”
Although the Allens’ vigango are going to a museum for now, Alice Mayaka, permanent secretary of national heritage for the Kenyan government, said she hoped family members would come forward to claim them.
As for American collectors and museums, Mr. Stith said, “The hope is more folks will see this and be inspired to act as nobly.”
Correction: June 27, 2007
A picture caption in The Arts yesterday with an article about the handover of nine looted Kenyan wooden statues to the Kenyan government misidentified the official shown at a ceremony at the United Nations. He is Peter Ogego, the Kenyan ambassador to the United States — not Zachary Dominic Muburi-Muita, Kenya’s representative to the United Nations, who also attended.