October 24, 2006
Although the British Museum has returned some artefacts to Kenya as a short term loan for an exhibition, many in Kenya feel that these pieces should all be returned permanently to allow Kenyans to allow everyone in Kenya to be able to see them. The suggestion is that the British Museum has so many more Kenyan objects than are now in Kenya, that even if they returned some it would hardly make a dent in their collection.
The East African
October 23, 2006
Kenya’s past, on loan to its present!
BETTY CAPLAN writes that the 140 artefacts loaned to Kenya by the British Museum ought to remain in the country not just because that is where they belong but also because in London, they are hidden away in store
FOR YEARS I HAVE WANTED to go into the old Nairobi Provincial Commissioner’s office, which stands at the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway, and is overlooked by Nyayo House – the current provincial headquarters.
The old office, built in 1913, is a vanishing relic of the colonial era, when architecture was human in scale, and balance and proportion mattered more than how much you could cram into a tiny space.
The office is one of the city’ treasures, providing important evidence of its past, and giving it distinction.
To have an exhibition in such an interesting building can also act as a major draw for tourists, if only they know about it.
It is with great delight then, that I have been visiting this building since the exhibition called Hazina: Traditions, Trade and Transitions in Eastern Africa opened in March after much talk about returning stolen artefacts to Kenya.
The artefacts, on show until March next year, have been loaned to Kenya by the British Museum, but only for the duration of the exhibition.
The irony is that if you go to London to see these things (though probably you won’t be able to because they are hidden away due to lack of space) you pay nothing thanks to British magnanimity and the ordinary taxpayer.
But at the Nairobi Gallery, which is what it is now being called, you are charged Ksh200 ($2.70, a lot of money for some people in a country where 60 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day).
As a member of Kenya Museum Society or Nature Kenya, however, you pay nothing, so that’s an incentive to join.
Either way, it is well worth visiting this gracious structure to see the way a building can be like the human body, with all rooms leading to a central lobby, which is comparable to veins pumping blood into the heart. At the centre of the octagonal space, curator Kiprop Lagat has placed one of the two finest siwa – side-blown horns – in existence.
This one is made out of ivory; from Pate Island, near Lamu, it dates from 1688 and was last used in 1960 during a wedding ceremony involving a prominent local family.
“The siwa was perceived as a symbol of unity and Swahili rulers acted as its sole guardians. The horns were also believed to have supernatural and magical powers; their sound was thought to confer blessings on those who heard it,” writes Dr Ahmed Yassin in the accompanying booklet. “So closely was the siwa linked to authority within the community that any mishap that befell it was viewed as a prelude to potential disaster for the ruler of the state.
The siwa is a magnificent object that dominates the exhibition – the finesse of the ivory carving on the one side and the elegant filigree brass work on the other, containing fragments of Islamic text, making it a potent symbol of the uniqueness of East African civilisation.
No aspect of the human cycle is shunned. In Western societies, death is too uncomfortable a subject to be discussed so it is banished; the result is an unhealthy repression and a frenetic concentration on the present.
This exhibition gives a glimpse of another approach to the fact of human mortality, the ritual marking of turning points in a human life. The ingolole – a circumcision mask made of fibre and skin and belonging to the Tiriki people of Kenya has a strange, ghostly presence.
No wonder, as it was meant to scare away women and children from approaching the initiates being trained in the seclusion of the forest and watched over by batili (caretakers).
Bukhulu, the accompanying dance, is a form of apeing of the ancestors, thereby becoming one with them. A sign of successful masculinity is when the initiate breaks loose the palm reeds that are fastened to the top of the head in a knot.
THE WORD AND ACT ALSO symbolise the fertilisation of the ova by seminal fluid, emphasising the necessity to reproduce the race. The mask protects initiates from the fierce sun and from excessive sweating, which could sap their energy. Like all true masks, it hides the wearer’s outward identity allowing the inner self to emerge in a safe context. The two round eyeholes remind you of unblinking owls.
There are many reasons why the objects in the collection should remain in Kenya apart from those already mentioned. For one, there is nothing comparable in this country on public view.
In London, there is so much that most of it cannot be seen at any one time. If you stole 140 objects out of the existing 12,000 (not that I’m suggesting such a thing), no-one except a few odd curators here and there would even notice.
True, for research purposes, it might be useful to have everything in one place but this is outweighed by the need that exists for those to whom the artefacts mean most to be able to see them readily.
I was born far from here, but it is a source of great comfort to look at these things, to understand where they come from and to connect the past with the present in the place where I live.
There are many links with the present day. In the catalogue, Vanessa Bahirana Kazzora writes of the Uganda Langi ceremonial headdress Kitok Gin: ” …research into hair, hairdressing, headdresses, body and facial ornamentation has frequently been overlooked. Without the proper contextualisation, the pieces lose their meaning and we are unable to understand the complex political, social and metaphysical messages they carry.”
This headdress is made up of brass strips appliquéd onto a cap woven out of wickerwork and the wearer’s own hair.
The sinuous gold shapes are highly reminiscent of snakes, counterbalanced aesthetically by circular motifs. It was such elaborate hair art that necessitated the many headrests that form a unique part of African life. These are only a few of the items that are on show, in an exhibition that is clear, lucid and quite manageable. Don’t miss it.
- British Museum insists that “repatriation is yesterday’s question” : April 13, 2006
- Kenya requests that its history is returned : August 6, 2008
- An upgrade for Kenya’s National Museum : August 19, 2006
- British know more about Kenyan history than Kenyans : April 8, 2006
- The British Museum & restitution claims : May 24, 2005
- Are stolen treasures really better off in the West? : April 13, 2006
- British Museum would rather export cultural diplomacy than return artefacts : February 26, 2005
- British Museum returns Kenyan treasures (temporarily) : November 30, 2005