April 25, 2006

Fight for the return of stolen African art

Posted at 12:40 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Despite the fact that Kiprop Lagat & the British Museum seem to feel that it is not an important issue, many Kenyans still feel aggrieved that they are only receiving their stolen artwork back on short term loan as a temporary exhibition.

Daily Nation (Kenya)

Battle for return of stolen African art
Publication Date: 4/24/2006

Many years ago, thousands of priceless craft were looted and shipped overseas. A few are back now, on a short loan from Britain. They have a strange cheer around them … but they will be spirited away again to cold and alien cages.

She stands tall and proud – a true scion of the Nyamwezi people of Tanzania. Power and elegance surround her like a halo, her gaze steady and unblinking. By her side are diminutive valets. They cater for her every whim.

So why is she so sad? And what happened to her arm? Did she lose it while fighting off her captors? The cruelty of being uprooted from East Africa to Europe is too plain to see. But she is fleetingly happy now. She is back home – if only for a while.

She is one of the many attractions to the Hazina exhibition, currently on-going at The Nairobi Gallery.

Her agony and that of other captives was captured by one visitor to the exhibition. “Bring them all back and make the story here where they belong,” wrote the man in the Visitors’ Book.

There are more than 140 objects that belong to the British Museum – but are originally from Kenya, Uganda, south Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Burundi – on display at the exhibition at the old Provincial Commissioner’s house on Kenyatta Avenue.

They include a woman’s girdle of the Gikuyu, dating back to 1904, a medicine flask by the Embu (1914), a head dress of the Longi people (1938), a woman’s skirt of the Safwa community in Tanzania (1939), and bearded armlets by the Akamba, which became museum collections in 1972.

The exhibition, which runs until September, has stoked the fires of the campaign for the return of priceless artefacts, obelisks, stelae, statues, paintings, sarcophagi, manuscripts and other afrophiliacs lying in museums and wealthy private collectors’ homes in Europe and America.

Most of these items were either stolen during the colonial era, or sold by individuals to dealers from foreign countries who re-sold them at a princely sum. Others, writes George Abungu, heritage consultant and former director general of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), were taken to foreign museums for study and were never returned.

“They date as way back as the 19th century to as late as 2002,” says Kiprop Langat, a research scientist at NMK and curator of the Hazina Exhibition.

Some of the missing items are indispensable in the crafting of Kenya’s political past. They include a huge consignment of uniform, weapons and other material from Mau Mau freedom fighters handed over to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at Ruringu Stadium, Nyeri. The stadium was a battlefield for the Mau Mau and it is believed that Kenyatta received the items in 1963, just before he became Kenya’s first president.

Thousands of documents on Mau Mau freedom fighters lie at the National Archives of the UK. George Muoria, a senior archivist at Kenya National Archives, says the British regard them as theirs. “But they are part of our material culture and should come back.”

Others are head gear, shoes and bracelets of legendary Nandi leader Koitalel arap Samoei. Only two weeks ago, the Koitalel Samoei clan renewed its call for return of these items, plus his head, which was taken away by British colonial soldiers on October 19, 1907.

Led by Captain Richard Meinertzhagen, the British killed and beheaded Samoei in an effort to quell a seven-year resistance by the Nandi.

Besides the demand for return of stolen artifacts, the clan is suing the British Government for Samoei’s killing. Only recently, a walking stick and baton – traditional symbols of power of the Nandi leader – were returned. They were recovered from descendants of Meinertzhagen by scholars Kipkoech Muge and Kipnyango Seroney after a nine-month hunt in London.

A spirited search has also seen the tracing of two vigango stolen from a Mijikenda homestead on the Coast, 20 years ago. The artefacts, made of termite-resistant hardwood posts that range in height but consist of a circle for the head and a rectangle for the body, are on display at Illinois State Museum and at Hampton University Museum in Virginia. They are to be returned at the request of NMK.

Used by the Mijikenda to venerate the dead, one of them was taken in 1985 from a homestead in Kakwakwani, Mombasa. “We realised it had been removed illegally,” Michael Wiant of Illinois museum told the New York Times.

There are 294 vigango in the US acquired through a Los Angeles-based artefacts dealer. He is alleged to have bought them during his many trips to Kenya, spread over 30 years. At the Hampton University Museum is one of 98 such items. It was reportedly taken from the home of Kache Kalume Mwakiru, while that at the Illinois Museum was one of eight donated in 1986 to actor Powers Boothe.

The artefacts were apparently stolen by local youths and sold to foreign traders acting on behalf of wealthy clients. They sell for only $500 (Sh35,500) at local shops while in the US they fetch as much as $5,000 (Sh355,500).

The two maneless, man-eating lions of Tsavo which stalled work on the Kenya-Uganda railway in 1898, by reportedly killing and eating 135 Indian and African labourers, are the other priceless items Kenyans would like to have back. They are on display at Field Museum, Chicago, their fort since 1928.

The two were sold by Colonel J.H Patterson, who spent nine months pursuing them before killing them. He later sold them to the British Museum, who in turn sold them to the museum in Chicago. Patterson immortalised the horrific beasts in the best-selling book: The man-eaters of Tsavo. The couple is also the subject of the movie, Ghost and the darkness.

It is documented that the stuffed lions account for a substantial number of the five-million plus visitors to the Field museum per year.

But what is worrying is that even with these concerted efforts to restitute the treasures, they are still finding their way to foreign museums and private collectors’ vaults. “This is very worrying. If you go to Maasai Market in Nairobi, and in Turkana and Maasai land, you can readily buy these items, some dating back many years,” says Langat. “Local communities should appreciate our national heritage.”

Other priceless memorabilia in private ownership include uniform and medals by World War II soldiers and Carrier Corps. Routinely, NMK purchases these items for preservation. But, reveals Langat, they do not have adequate resources to purchase all of them. So when a good offer beckons from abroad, the holders of these items sell them.

Last year, then head of Ethnography department at NMK, Evans Kiprop, said items of the Njuri Ncheke – a traditional court in the Meru culture – failed to come under their protection owing to a cash shortfall. The seller was asking for Sh5 million but NMK couldn’t raise this.

A Japanese collector was offering Sh2 million. Luckily, the seller was adamant and the regalia is still around. “It would have formed an important part of our collection but we could not raise the Sh5 million the seller was asking for,” said Kiprop.

Last April, individuals in possession of the War memorabilia went knocking at NMK’s department of Ethnography, in response to a request by Afribilia Limited, a London-based dealer in artefacts. The dealer had written to the Kenyan High Commissioner in London requesting a catalogue of items available for sale.

It’s generally agreed that without adequate funds, the artefacts will find their way to American and European markets. This is best illustrated in how the African Heritage Collection by second vice-president Joseph Murumbi landed in Government hands. Kenya National Archives paid Sh5.6 million for the collection, which included books, sculptures, drawings and musical instruments.

Murumbi was married to a naturalised Kenyan of British descent. When she died, it was feared that the collection would be shipped to Britain to the next of kin. “Having served in the Government for some time, Murumbi had an impressive collection. Losing it would have been unimaginable,” says Muoria.

The contentious issue of ownership of artefacts has become global, with numerous countries agitating for return of what is rightfully theirs. This has prompted those in possession of disputed artefacts to come up with “universal museums” that proclaim to “secure items for humanity.” In December, 2002, 18 of the world’s leading museums joined forces to declare that they would not hand back ancient artefacts to their countries of origin. They claimed that their collections are for the “good of the world.”

These museums include the Art Institute of Chicago; Bavarian State Museum, Germany; Prado Museum, Madrid; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But this was seen as a veiled attempt to sanctify items illegally in their possession. According to a paper by Abungu, who doesn’t support the idea of large-scale repatriation, the declaration of a universal museum was in response to fears that some museums would be left with hardly any collection.

He says that although NMK, of which he was director until 2002, is universally known for its work on human origins, it wasn’t asked to join the group of universal museums. “What is the basis of their universal value? Are universal museums based solely in Europe and North America?” he ponders in The declaration: A contested issue.

“It seems to me that the declaration on the importance and value of universal museums is signed principally by a group of large museums who want to create a different pedigree, largely due to fears that materials in their collections whose ownership is contested will face claims for repatriation.”

He says that he does not believe in mass repatriation, except for human remains and materials of great emotional and spiritual value. There should always be dialogue between museums, and between museums and communities affected by issues of repatriation, to reach amicable solutions, he notes.

Abungu suggests that one of the solutions may be for the communities concerned to accept the present ownership situation, “and the museum may be provided with a permanent loan”.

Lang’at says that besides amending past wrongs, African countries should seal loopholes through which the items are exported. Secondly, they can liaise with museums in Europe and the US to make the artefacts available for viewing at the request of the country of origin. NMK has such a leasing agreement with leading museums worldwide, whereby artefacts can be made available either way.

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