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In Search of Africa's Ancestral Statues

by Alicia P. Gregory

See the end of this story in Odyssey Summer 2008.

1985. Kenya. Monica Udvardy follows Katana from his mud-walled house to the outskirts of his homestead. The old man stops in front of two elaborately carved wooden posts that embody the spirits of his dead brothers. Strips of blue, red and white cloth, tied around the neck of the abstract human forms, sway in the wind.

Udvardy lifts the camera to her eye, unaware that this click of the shutter will bring about her transformation from anthropologist to crusader against global traffic in East African "art."

This transformation does not happen overnight. It is a long journey, with stops along the way in Africa, where she conducts firsthand research on gender roles, in University of Kentucky classrooms, where she teaches 400 students each fall, and at professional conferences, where she presents the results of her research. It was at one such conference in 1999 that Udvardy had her eureka moment.

Photo of Katana and his vigangoKatana, photographed by Monica Udvardy in 1985, with his vigango—the memorial statues that represent his two deceased brothers. His vigango were stolen less than a month after the photo was taken. Fifteen years later, Udvardy and Giles discovered them in the museum collections of Illinois State and Hampton universities.

Born in Canada, to Finnish-Swedish and Hungarian parents, Udvardy grew up speaking Swedish. So after getting her master's in anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a move to Sweden just made sense.

"Sweden gives most of their developmental aid to African nations, so there are strong historical ties," says Udvardy, who was a doctoral student at Uppsala University in Sweden in 1985. "That was the primary reason I chose Africa."

Her interest in gender and aging led her to East Africa and a group of people called the Mijikenda. She zeroed in on the Giriama, a subgroup of about half-a-million people, because 20 years earlier researchers had compiled baseline data on the Giriama's elderly.

"I was looking at how the elderly gain power and influence, and I was studying women and men separately," she says, adding, "Nobody at the time had done firsthand research on old women." So Udvardy began to explore how old women get power in a society that automatically awards authority to men.

Photo of Monica Udvardy"It's important to leave the tangible manifestations of a living culture with the people who have created those objects and who use them on a daily basis, no matter how 'beautiful' they are," says Monica Udvardy, an associate professor of anthropology at UK. In the background is a replica of a vigango made for her by a grad student.

To test her hypothesis that women gain influence through their sons, Udvardy, who says she speaks enough of their language to "get by" but often had the help of an interpreter, spent 14 months interviewing older women in a rural Kenyan community. "Giriama extended families reside in homesteads, or compounds. There are usually three generations—a father, his wife or wives, all of his sons, the sons' wives, any unmarried children, as well as numerous grandchildren." Homesteads range in size from seven to 70 people.

To conduct her research Udvardy says she relied on what is called "snowball sampling": "I'd start with one woman, and her friends would become curious, you know, 'Why is this white woman in your homestead?' They'd say, 'We want her to come talk to us.'" The women in this community became very comfortable with Udvardy, a fact that opened a door to a supposedly defunct secret society and a first-hand view of the Giriama's reverence of ancestral spirits.

"One day as I was interviewing two or three older women, I needed to go and relieve myself, and you usually do that by just walking into the bush," she says. "There I saw what looked to me like a pit latrine—a little mud-walled, thatched-roof structure that you find at about every tenth homestead." But when she opened the door, instead of a latrine, Udvardy found a platform with a couple of clay pots.

"Having done my historical reading, I suspected this was the shrine of Kifudu, a female secret society I'd read about in records from the 1910s. I had no idea it was still active. I asked, and the women laughed and said, 'Oh, yes. That's Kifudu.' And that's how I got interested in women's roles in the secret society."

Udvardy's dissertation focused on how post-menopausal women, the custodians of these clay pots, are responsible for the fertility of the entire ethnic group. "The pots stand for the ancestresses," she explains. To honor them, the women take the pots from the shrine, bring them to the center of the homestead, and "play" them—by putting their mouths in the openings of the pots and blowing. "The sound produced is a signal to all of the people in surrounding homesteads that a party is going on," Udvardy says. There's free food and drink, and people bring other instruments and they play all night.

"Without the women performing rituals centering on these clay pots, the Giriama believe that young fertile women will have problems in childbirth.

"In order to contextualize this female society, I needed to learn about the male societies," says Udvardy, recognizing that this research offshoot is what brought her to Katana's door in 1985 and what inevitably led to her present-day cultural activism.

"The Giriama have five male secret societies, and then Kifudu, the only female secret society," Udvardy says.

She interviewed five members of the all-male Gohu society, including Katana. "The Gohu society, similar to the Lions Club or the Masons, is a fraternal organization for wealthier-than-average men. You have to be elected to membership and pay membership fees, which by local standards are quite expensive. There isn't a lot of wealth stratification among the Giriama, but Gohu membership requires giving a bull, which costs about three months' income."

The key feature of the Gohu society is how they honor their members when they die. "Men in the society are skilled carvers and are paid to create the kigango—a memorial statue—for the dead Gohu member," Udvardy says. She explains that these statues (vigango: the plural form of kigango) are part of an expensive ceremony. "It costs about the equivalent of $185 for them to pay the carver and sponsor a feast to honor the deceased," she says.

The posts, which range from four to nine feet tall, are created from indigenous termite-resistant hardwood. They consist of a circle for the head and rectangle for the body, and vary in decoration. Udvardy says, "Photographs from the early 20th century show more elaborately carved vigango. The head was more three dimensional than the ones they make today. The carving itself has always been what's called chip carving, but that's become more stylized—more simplified—over time. On the other hand, the painting has increased. You'll find vigango painted bright red these days, and others painted blue or white."

Blue is often equated with black, she explains, in the East African color pallet. "Black is the color of god, and white is the color of purity. Red is an accent color. It adds emphasis to whatever other color it's with." Strips of cloth in these colors, representing clothing, adorn the necks of the statutes.

Vigango are placed around the edge of the homestead, but they are not the sole monuments. Other uncarved wooden statues, called koma, are raised in honor of non-Gohu members and occupy the middle of the homestead. "These smaller statues are erected in a clear space that is surrounded by homes. People are buried right next to their houses, so these statues do not actually mark the graves," Udvardy explains.

Photo of homesteadUdvardy's photo shows a typical mud-walled, thatched-roof house and koma (statues that represent the spirits of people who did not belong to the secret society) erected in a clearing in the middle of the Giriama homestead.

Even these ordinary statues play a role in the daily lives of the Giriama. When they drink palm wine ("Something the Giriama drink every day," Udvardy says. "It's like beer."), they'll pour a few drops on the ground in front of the statues and say a few words to the ancestors.

She laughs and recalls, "I overheard one elder say to an ancestor, 'You know those tourists that come up from the coast to watch us? Can you make one of those fat wallets the men carry in the back of their jeans fall out on the ground?'

"There's a strong belief in the power of the ancestors to influence the lives of the living on an everyday basis. The remarkable thing about the Giriama is that, despite the inroads of Islam and Christianity, indigenous religious beliefs continue to be strongly held, and primary among those is veneration for the ancestors and ancestresses."

In the case of vigango, they are believed to embody the spirit of the ancestor. These statues are the tangible link between the living and the dead, and must be honored through animal sacrifice and libations. Failure to perform these rituals or, worse yet, removing a kigango from its site (an act Udvardy says the Giriama have an explicit prohibition against) will trigger the curse of the ancestral spirit.

This curse can take the form of bodily illness or death of the descendants, drought, diseased livestock, or even children who can't find employment. But, as Udvardy points out, "the older generation believes in the power of ancestral spirits to a much greater degree than the younger people."

And that's where trouble comes in. With growing populations, poor economies ("a holdover from colonialism, which was as recent as the early 1960s in most African countries"), and not enough land to farm, young Mijikenda men can't find work. "They're desperate. They need incomes. And some young men resort to stealing vigango, because there's a market for them in the West."Vigango are considered the art form of East Africa," says Udvardy, who estimates that there are at least 1,000 of these statues in existence, "but most Westerners fail to realize these objects are ritual artifacts of a living culture.

"I'm a cultural anthropologist: I study cultures alive today. It's important to leave the tangible manifestations of a living culture with the people who have created those objects and who use them on a daily basis, no matter how 'beautiful' they are."

But vigango are part of a global $4.5 billion-a-year industry—"traffic in cultural artifacts is the third-largest illegal industry, after the drug trade and arms smuggling," she says.

Katana began to cry as he held the photos of his statues Udvardy had taken a month earlier when she first visited his

homestead. "I was very surprised to see tears rolling down his cheeks, and that was when he told me his vigango had been stolen," Udvardy says, visibly moved by the memory. "He asked me to help him locate them, which I did sporadically whenever I was down on the coast, looking in hotel lobbies and tourist shops, where you sometimes see them.

Photo of vandelized hut that covered statuesThieves toppled the thatched-roof structure over several vigango and removed them. They left the less ornate koma in place.

Photo by John Mitsanze

"But I never found his statues—until 15 years later."

In 1999 Udvardy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, was splitting her time between teaching undergrad and graduate courses, acting as the department's director of undergraduate studies, and conducting research. She traveled to Philadelphia to take part in a panel on Mijikenda culture at the African Studies Association annual conference.

"I talked about the Gohu society, and among the images I showed were slides of Katana with his two statues." It just so happened that fellow anthropologist Linda Giles from Illinois State University was the next presenter. She showed slides of her university museum's large collection of African artifacts, including 38 vigango.

"I yelled, 'Stop! Go back one,'" Udvardy says. "There was one of Katana's statues! We took my slide, put it in her tray and went back and forth between the two images. Everybody in the room was just astounded."

And in that eureka moment, she clearly saw her future as a cultural activist. "We decided we needed to try to repatriate the statue.

"The dean responsible for the museum at Illinois State immediately indicated he was willing to do the right thing." Not long after that conference, Udvardy and Giles took a weekend, poured over exhibit catalogs from all of the African art collections in American museums, and found Katana's other statue. Last summer they wrote to, but have not yet heard back from, the curator of Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which has 99 vigango, including Katana's, in their collection.

Since 2001, one of Giles's research assistants, a young Giriama man named John Mitsanze, has been playing the role of field detective. "In the course of trying to collect information on the thieves, John was told that sometimes they perform a kind of counter-ritual to offset the curse believed to be triggered by moving a kigango," Udvardy says. Mitsanze is documenting what he hears about stolen vigango and photographing existing statues. "That's our small, grassroots effort to stop the traffic in these particular statues."

Udvardy's next step is to trace the journey of Katana's vigango. "I'll be looking at the different people involved, from Katana and his family, to the thief, to the art dealer who sells vigango in the United States, to the collectors of vigango—many of whom are Hollywood celebrities—to the collector's accountants, to the museum curators who accept them as donations. I'll focus on the transformation in meaning of the objects through the different hands that have had the objects."

Of the roughly 360 vigango in American museums, Giles and Udvardy have traced 90 percent back to one American art dealer. "This particular dealer almost single-handedly created a market for these objects," Udvardy says. "He has done so despite the fact that he has spent time with the Gohu elders and has written a book about vigango, so he knows they should not be removed."

Art dealers are key characters in Udvardy's study: "It's important for an art dealer that the purchaser in the West gets a little bit of knowledge about the object, but not too much. It's also important for the dealer to keep the Western collector separate from the local people because, after all, this intermediary role is how he makes his living."

The Western art dealer is able to make a huge profit because of the economic inequity between the West and the non-Western world. Udvardy lays out the money chain: the thief is paid $50 by the local shopkeeper, who sells the object to an art dealer for several hundred dollars, who then sells it to art collectors for $1,000 to $4,000.

A number of Hollywood celebrities (including Andy Warhol, Linda Evans, Gene Hackman, and Powers Boothe) have collected vigango. Udvardy knows this because the names show up in what's called an accession record. She explains: "When an item comes in, the museum gives it a number and records who it came from, and the date it came in. They also add the biography of the object—called the provenance—that includes what it is, where it came from, and how old it is. This kind of cataloging is a time-consuming process for the museum, but it's crucial."

In fact, such records show that Boothe donated eight vigango to the Illinois State Museum in 1986, including Katana's statue. Udvardy wants to know if these celebrities are buying vigango for their own home collections or if their accountants are purchasing items in the celebrity's name, getting objects appraised, and then donating them to museums as a tax write-off. "Those are my two competing hypotheses." Udvardy says with a smile, "Do you know how to call up a movie star?"

Public awareness is Udvardy's goal. She uses the forum of the university classroom—she teaches 400 students every fall—to convince the next generation that taking cultural objects out of their context hurts everyone.

"The general public is not aware of how far science has come in studying artifacts. Archeologists can do chemical analysis of the soil surrounding an object, analysis that yields all kinds of valuable information about the people who created and used an object." She also gives practical shopping advice like: "If it looks weathered, recently embedded in dirt, or someone tells you it's 'authentic,' don't buy it."

Authenticity is one of the topics Udvardy looks forward to exploring. "I'm very curious about why people collect African art. I think Western collectors have a fascination with what they consider to be 'exotic' cultures, and their interest in vigango probably has something to do with their notions of authenticity—that these are objects of a pure, natural, uncorrupted culture."

Photo of coastal Kenyan landscapeGiriama homesteads are scattered around groves of coconut palms, the main cash crop in coastal Kenya.

Photo by Monica Udvardy

Udvardy is working with Kenya's national museums, and she's even lobbying for international legislation. "We're recommending that a lot of the features of the Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) be made international," she says. "Enacted in 1995, NAGPRA says objects in U.S. museums that can be traced to a particular cultural group belong to that group, and museums have an obligation to inventory their collections and make that information available to the group."

Udvardy, Giles and Mitsanze have published three articles on the cultural importance of vigango in American Anthropologist (September 2003), Anthropology News (September 2003) and Cultural Survival Quarterly (Winter 2004).

And they've ruffled some feathers along the way. "We've presented these papers in various venues to museum curators, art historians and anthropologists. We did get a couple of curators who bristled when we said that these are stolen objects, and they asked us, 'What proof do you have?'" Udvardy says.

In most cases, even if curators suspect something was stolen, they can't prove it. Udvardy says that's the big dilemma: there's international legislation that prohibits traffic in stolen goods, but you have to be able to document that they were stolen. "That what's unique about our case," Udvardy says with increased animation. "We can actually trace these statues back to their point of origin—that's extremely rare.

"At conferences when Linda and I try to initiate a group discussion, curators tend to skirt these questions about their involvement in accepting collections and their relationships to art dealers. But many curators have come up to us individually to tell us that they know many things donated to museums are stolen.

"After reading one of our articles, a museum employee sent me an email to bring our attention to one museum's large collection of vigango, of which Linda and I were unaware. But, in doing so, the correspondent requested anonymity," Udvardy says.

The difficulty for museum curators, she explains, is their relationship to art dealers, particularly in the United States where there is less federal funding for museums than in Europe. U.S. museums rely on patrons for donations of money and art. So the art dealer becomes the broker between wealthy collectors and curators, says Udvardy. "From the curator's perspective: they want collections and they need donations, so they need to maintain good relationships with art dealers."

In the case of a university museum, Udvardy recognizes that building a collection is important. "Universities want to have a wide variety of objects because they use them in teaching, but how many are truly needed for educational purposes? No one museum needs 99 vigango—so that becomes one of the ethical questions we pose to curators.

"Linda and I appreciate the awkward position curators are in. We aren't being pulled in as many directions. We have the freedom to raise awareness of these ethical issues, so that's why we've taken it on to lead the charge to return these objects to their rightful owners."

Although Udvardy suspects Katana will not have the chance to see his statues again (he has probably been honored with his own kigango by now), she is dedicated to returning these memorial objects to his descendants. And she looks forward to continuing her work to preserve the cultural heritage of the Giriama.

Entire article as pdf

See the end of this story in Odyssey Summer 2008.