20 Oct 2021

Who Knows? Maybe Those Spirits Are Happier in a Denver Museum

, , , , , ,

Vigango (that’s the plural, the singular is kikango) are the tombstone-equivalents of the Mijikenda tribe residing on the southeastern coast of Kenya. From the viewpoint of the natives, these simple effigies embodied the spirits of their deceased ancestors. On the other hand, just like lots of other examples of primitive art forms, these abstract anthropomorphic figures have, in later years, been adopted by the Trans-Atlantic Bourgeois Bohemians as trophies and status symbols testifying to their possessors’ affluence, highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, and sophisticated sympathy with exotic Third World peoples.

In their original tropical environment, wooden vigango simply sat there in local graveyards and were allowed to rot away, sometimes being replaced at a new location when the village moved by a second generation effigy called a kibao (plural: vibao).

The arrival of a lucrative international market for vigango naturally resulted in the removal of loads of them to the West along with their consequent collecting, connoisseurship, and conservation.

But we live in the Age of the Groveling GooGoo, bent on signaling his moral superiority and worthiness of membership in the Community of Fashion Elite by apologizing for Civilization’s alleged sins and treating the simple-minded superstitions of the primitives with a deference he’s would never remotely be willing to grant to his own inherited Religion, Culture, Country, or Civilization.

Consequently, you see, what today’s doctorate-degreed scholar, scientist, and museum curator will explain needs to be done with these vigango is return them, with apologies, to the African bush, where, instead of being appreciated and preserved, they should be supposedly returned to their original purpose of containing somebody or other’s ancestral spirits and permitted to rot away.

Exactly how one would locate the correct descendant of, and the right burial location for, each kikango is never explained. And, personally, I think Doctor Professor Stephen E. Nash Ph.D., Senior Curator of Archaeology and Director of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science is naive in not expecting any natives fortunate enough to have “returned” to them art objects having significant cash value to run right out and sell ’em to the nearest dealer.

Dr. Nash, he tells us, has been busy with good deeds for quite some time. (Talk about misnamed!) Sapiens:

Over the last decade, I have worked to repatriate from U.S. museums ancestral grave posts, or vigango (singular: kikango), to the Mijikenda tribes on the Kenya coast northeast of Mombasa. The Mijikenda carve and erect vigango to honor esteemed members of their society after they die. Vigango are not “art.” The Mijikenda believe vigango to be the embodiment of each dead person’s soul.

Sadly, local thieves and international art dealers established a vast network to steal and sell hundreds, if not thousands, of vigango from the 1970s through the 1990s. Well-meaning but often ill-informed Americans then donated hundreds of vigango to museums like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), where I work. As the meaning and purpose of the vigango have become clearer, and the discussion about museum ethics has evolved, curators and staff, including me, have started to work hard to return such objects to their owners and proper homes.

Reading on, we find that, for all of his Western education, Stephen Nash takes Mijikenda beliefs quite literally and proposes treating them as possessing a factual status he undoubtedly would never concede to Christianity or the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

One day, we photographed a collection of more than 50 vigango belonging to a well-known European artist and collector in a coastal city not far from the Mijikenda homeland. After a tour of the hotel complex from which he earns a living and displays his own works of art, the older man opened a locked garage, and there they were—dozens of vigango leaned up against the wall with hundreds of pieces of art.

I felt as if I had entered a morgue. Indeed, I felt sick to my stomach.

Ifound it hard to accept that, after all the documented harm that has occurred to the Mijikenda from the theft of their ancestors, there was still such a collection within a 50-mile radius of the Mijikenda homelands. Curiously, our Mijikenda colleague Katana seemed to feel it less, but he has known about the collection for some time now. Perhaps it has become something of an unpleasant fact for the Mijikenda to know that some vigango are in private collections like these.

This particular collector clearly believes he is doing the right thing by physically preserving the vigango, even in a locked shed. He said he feared these vigango might be destroyed if not protected by him. There is a long colonialist tradition of believing that the collection of objects by Western museums is nothing but good for science, culture, history, and humanity; that’s an old way of thinking that’s thankfully changing.

For me, it was striking how the vigango in his collection were totally out of their cultural context. I could argue that the vigango in Denver were well cared for, professionally catalogued and conserved. But vigango are supposed to decay out on the landscape, like totem poles in the Northwest Coast. They are supposed to be home, with their relatives.

My initial feelings of shock and judgment over this particular collection were self-righteous; on reflection, I could see the hypocrisy. The vigango at DMNS had been 6,000 miles away from home in a very different cultural context before we repatriated them.

Which vigango experienced more culture shock: those in Denver or those in the private collection in Kenya?

Returning vigango—whether from the United States or from closer to home—is more complicated than it may first seem, not just because of the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost for proper care in shipping. Vigango are not supposed to move once erected. The Mijikenda know all too well that moving a dedicated vigango causes harm to family, homestead, and community. Crops fail. People and animals get sick. Social structures and mores unravel.


And that’s where we are in the Academic and Intellectual World of the West today. A highly-educated professional museum curator devotes his time, energy, and funding, not to the conservation and connoisseurship of primitive art from the rational and objective perspective of Modern Civilization. Instead, he embraces the superstitious beliefs of primitives and fritters away his institution’s funding and resources removing art and sending it back where it came from to be consigned to complete oblivion via the tender mercies of tropical insects and fungi. And nobody fires this guy!

3 Feedbacks on "Who Knows? Maybe Those Spirits Are Happier in a Denver Museum"


You don’t appreciate how heavy is the white man’s burden. If members of the lesser races are too dull to realize how offended they should feel, it is up to men like these with their more exquisitely-attuned sensibilities to be offended on their behalf.

Hairless Joe

Well, if we follow his logic to its conclusion, there’s no need for his job. Let’s see how disciplined his reasoning is that case.


Let’s cut the crap. Like most aboriginal art these things are crude, ugly, and poorly done. If a Western folk artist had made these things, they wouldn’t even make it to a booth in a swap meet craft show. If there is any value in these carvings, it’s to remind us of how far the human race has progressed from the time when this stuff was “State of the Art”.



Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark