April 8, 2006

British know more about Kenyan history than Kenyans

Posted at 4:43 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Museum has organised a much publicised exhibition in Africa – people have questioned though, the fact that many of the artefacts that they are lending should still be in Africa. One statement from the article sums up the problem: “the British have more knowledge of African in the UK than Kenyans themselves“.
While teaching people in the UK about other cultures is admirable as a goal when seen in isolation, is it still such a good thing if it leads to the people of these cultures knowing les about it themselves because it has all been taken away from them?

The Nation (Nairobi, Kenya)

Kenya: Artefacts Back Home, Briefly
April 8, 2006
Posted to the web April 7, 2006
Carol Odero

“Evocative” perfectly captures one of the most comprehensive artwork collections in recent Kenya, the noisy end of Nyayo House being the perfect escape.

A joint exhibition by the British Museum and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), which started on March 30 and runs through to September 30, showcases Hazina – Kiswahili for treasure – describing items of beauty, value and interest.

On display are rich cultural traditions of eastern Africa nurtured by trade and interaction among various communities in the region.

Organised by a NMK curator, Kiprop Lagat, the exhibition features 1,200 objects from Kenya, Uganda, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Burundi on loan from the British Museum.

Choosing the artefacts was quite a task for Lagat who says, “they had to be aesthetically pleasing and tell a story”.

Preparations for the exhibitions began in 2003 after British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a grant to fund a three-year project to showcase his country’s links with Africa, as part of the 250th anniversary of the British Museum.

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museums, said about the exhibition; “All must exist to tell stories to the world. Stories that were never told before.”

The four themes of trade, well-being, leadership and contemporary art are meant to activate a forgotten past.

Britons know Africa better

To popularise the exhibition in African countries, Idle Farah, director general of Kenya National Museums said, “It is time for cultural objects kept oversees to be brought back.”

However, the debate on the return of artefacts aside, Kenyans are savouring the exhibition being held at the historic 93-year-old former provincial administration offices – now dubbed the Nairobi Gallery and renovated with the help of the Government and donors.

David Hicks, a BBC representative said young Kenyans must be allowed to get in touch with their history and that the British had a better knowledge of Africa in the UK than Kenyans themselves.

For example, few Kenyans know of the Kikuyu apron (muthuru) that was worn by circumcised girls. It consists of a flap made from goatskin, cowrie shells and multi-coloured glass beads fringed with metal chains.

Necklaces made of silver and gold, such as the chunky hirizi silver amulet necklace from Zanzibar with an imprint of a gold leaf, are also on display. It was designed to protect the wearer from illness, misfortune and possession by evil spirits, a belief still held among the coastal people of East Africa. Once danger was averted the amulet was given away or sold.

Another interesting artefact is the Mijikenda vigango, a tall angular posts representing a human being with facial features carved on one end. Historically, they were meant to bar people from tampering with graves. A curse would befall anyone who touched or removed them from a grave.

Easily understood is the Kiti cha Enzi from Zanzibar- a rectangular dark polished seat that was reserved for use by the leaders and other respected individuals. It was meant to denote status and influence and was inspired by Egyptian Mamluk Dynasty models.

There is also a rare display of feminine power with a Luo ligisa headdress for respected women.

On display is also a Kuria headdress (ikiore) made of ostrich feathers and sisal fibre sometime in 1967. It was used by elders when attending ceremonies like beer parties and during local gatherings.

A smattering of contemporary art mostly on canvas is exhibited with a striking piece from Magdalene Odundo in fine form. There is also TingaTinga Hospital done by a Zanzibar artist.

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