The Curse of the Mijikenda Vigango Statues
During the 1980s, Coastal Kenya experienced the largest heist of ancestral artifacts in history. Over 300 wooden Vigango statues were taken from the sacred grounds of several Mijikenda tribes. These 4-foot wooden statues were stolen and sold to western tourists and international art collectors. Since then, the Vigango statues have been discovered in private art collections and museums throughout Europe and the United States.
A majority of those Vigango pieces in circulation were sold by art dealer Ernie Wolfe III, who was accused by the New York Times in 2006 of being a prime suspect to the sale of stolen Vigango statues. Although hundreds of the statues which he sold remained in circulation, Wolfe III mentioned making efforts to stop further sales of newer Vigango statues. Much work has been made by American anthropologists Linda Giles, Monica Udvardy, and John B. Mitsanze to repatriate the looted statues back to Kenya. But a driving force in the return of the statues may have more to do with their haunting curses that plagued curators, collectors, and the Mijikenda people themselves.
Vigango. (Ellen/CC BY 2.0)
It is only by studying the anthropological, media, and historical accounts that one could understand not only why the statues were taken but why their potent spiritual powers allowed for their return to the Mijikenda homesteads and village centers of Kenya.
A Brief History of the Mijikenda Culture
The Mijikenda culture consists of nine tribes related to the Bantu ethnic groups of Kenya. Other Kenyans have derogatorily referred to the Mijikenda people either as the 'Nyika' or 'Nika,' meaning 'bush people.' This prejudice may be why their sacred statues may have been targets for looting, along with the pressures of crushing poverty. There are over 30 sacred Kaya forests that are used for prayer by the Mijikenda.
Vigango statues are created from the wood these sacred forests provide. The wood is resistant to termites and very dense. The statues stand 4 feet (1.22 meters) tall and have unique carved triangle etchings that symbolize abstract forms of identity that once bestowed the deceased Mijikenda elder they represent.
Mijikenda Kaya Forest. (Victor Ochieng/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The purpose of the Vigango’s creation is to incarnate the spirits of dead male Gohu elders who held significant respect and immense responsibility within the Mijikenda tribal community. It is the secretive Gohu society of men who are responsible for the construction of Vigango statues.
It is customary for a family to commission a member of the Gohu to create a Vigango statue of their respected male elder a week after death. The sculptures appear two dimensional in their depiction of revered elders of significance, but in their simplicity, a plethora of complex identities are shaped with each individual Vigango statue. This ritual is often followed by a festive meal and a family gathering.
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These statues also act as liaisons of communication for living community members to ask advice from wise elder spirit ancestors. The Vigango statues were said to aid in advice regarding plague, famine, and drought. Because of their essential role in the Mijikenda tribal community, Gohu are usually placed in the center of their town or near the current chief's homestead. However, it is believed that Vigango’s advice can only be heard by those related to the people who have passed.
Ernie Wolfe III mentioned that the statues are sometimes left behind when a village relocates to another fertile region. Once the village has settled, it is up to the tribe to erect smaller statues carrying no carvings, known as Vibaos, to take the place, power, and spiritual connectivity that make the abandoned Vigango statues powerless. If this ritual is not performed, the spirits of the elders, along with their enchanted magic, remain alone and isolated in the region no longer inhabited by their people.
Possible Vibao. (Exquisite African Art)
But the belief of deactivated Vigango statues being replaced by Vibao may be subject to scrutiny due to the controversy of Wolfe III's own collection. In another account mentioned by the New York Times, the anthropologist Udvardy believes that Wolfe III had misinterpreted the situation and that Vigango are to forever remain in the land they were erected.
Whichever is the truth, the fact remains that the theft and displacement of these powerful spirit vessels result in their wrath towards whoever steals, purchases, and acquires them. To carry a Vigango statue is both a blessing and a curse. And those who are cursed suffer the most.
The Angry Spirits and the Story of Theft
The statues carried the spirits of people who once walked alongside the living. Even in death, they held wisdom for their families who needed it. They demanded gifts, sacrifice, and respect. To abandon them means disappointment falling to those who loved and misfortune falling to those who failed. The Vigango statues embodied both the power of protection and curse. And the villages who fell victim to theft felt the results of their statue's absence in the form of plague, madness, and famine.
The local Gohus mention the chaotic anger the Vigango carry if and when the spirit they incarnate is angered. Their wrath carries no boundaries, and their torment echoes to no end. Accounts documented by interviews by the researcher Mwambingu mentioned that Gohus witnessed first-hand the fury of Vigango spirits driving thieving youths to madness and bringing unending misfortune to those who appeared smug in their presence.
Such hauntings would not end until a ceremonial ritual is performed to bring peace to the angered Vigango spirits. But when theft is involved and no ritual is performed, then those who committed the crimes endure the onslaught of their curse. And the ones who suffer from the Vigango's wrath the most are the Mijikenda people themselves.
Many Mijikenda people have blamed crop failure and dying livestock as a result of a statue’s seizure. Several deaths due to illness have also occurred shortly after a statue's disappearance. The power of the Vigango's anger was also seen within a Mijikenda community who once decided to allow ritual carvers to create fake statues to discourage theft by selling false Vigango's to tourist shops and art dealers. Even then, the carvers who engaged in their creation died of mysterious causes.
Their curses are infamous, and crossing the statues means a complete disrespect to the ancient ancestors. Yet, due to the unfortunate condition of intense poverty, theft of these statues continue. For many, it appears that the necessity for crime overpowers the fear of being cursed by angry spirits.
Troubled youths venture into Mijikenda villages searching for sacred Vigango statues to sell to black market dealers in African art. The appeal for these looters is purely economic. A sale of a stolen Vigango can range between 200 to 1300 US Dollars alone.
Once in the western world, the statues can sell for much more, ranging between 3000 to 5000 US Dollars. This has led to hundreds of statues being stolen over the last 30 years and ending up in the international global market - being bought, sold, and traded by art dealers, museums, and collectors alike.
Vigango. (The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY-NC SA 4.0)
Even across a thousand miles of ocean and land, the Vigango statues' power maintains their potency in their affliction towards their captors. As stated by the researcher Mwambingu, people who were in proximity of the stolen statues mentioned that they heard whispers crying to be returned. Misfortune also occurred in the form of bankruptcy for some and mysterious injuries with others.
Among the eerie accounts that occurred regarding accidents, mishaps, and hauntings, the largest mystery of all remained unsolved regarding who made it possible to have the Vigango statues traded internationally in the first place. Investigations pointed to Ernie Wolfe III as the main culprit to the acquisition of the statues.
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Although his statements have reflected his "horror and deeply saddening" feelings, he firmly states that his collection was legally and ethically acquired. In a follow-up email mentioned in the New York Times, Wolfe III mentioned the process of Mijikenda relocation and abandonment of settlement when grounds became infertile. Wolfe III states that Vigango statues remained left behind and deactivated once the Mijikenda find a new home during this process. Wolfe III purchased these 'deactivated' Vigango statues in tourist shops and Kenyan hotels rather than from thieves. Wolfe III also described purchasing deactivated Vigango statues through elders willing to sell them.
Wolfe III maintains that he was not actively purchasing stolen Vigango statues. Wolfe III has also stated that he no longer deals in the collection of newer Vigango statues and will only deal with his existing collection, accumulated since the 1980s. However, the fact remains that he sold a majority of the Vigango statues in circulation to museums and private collectors worldwide.
Kigango statue (singular of Vigango). (The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY-NC SA 4.0)
Return of the Vigango Statues
Throughout the early 2000s, the anthropologists Udvardy, Giles, and Mitsanze brought attention to the illegal global trade of non-western cultural properties. Since then, they have made progress in generating awareness of the problem of Vigango theft. Their repatriation activism began in 1999 when Giles presented a paper on her fieldwork regarding Gohu society, to which she revealed the grave concerns regarding Vigango theft. In her paper, she also presented information regarding the stolen Vigango statues being either on display in American museums or for sale in various international art galleries.
She mentioned that in 1990, 294 Vigango statues were identified to be on display in 19 different American museums. In 1992, a large collection of stolen Vigango statues was discovered in Illinois State University's museum. In later investigations, it was revealed that these particular statues disappeared from Katana in 1977.
Another group of stolen statues was then found in the exhibit catalogs of Hampton University in Virginia. Nineteen more universities, museums, and art galleries were revealed to carry several Vigango statues. Giles also revealed that tracking whoever was responsible for the trafficking was difficult since most of the collections presented came from multiple sources. Some were donated, others were bought.
Further efforts for repatriation of Vigango statues were made in 2014 by Steve Nash, Director of Anthropology and Curation at the Denver Museum, to return 30 Vigango statues from his own museum's collection. But Nash's journey to return just 30 statues proved to be more difficult than he expected. Although Nash arranged to return the statues to Kenya, there was no guarantee that they would be returned to the Mijikenda communities.
Not only would it be difficult to identify the correct place, but due to technicalities of the Vigango statues being classified as art pieces rather than religious relics, resulting in the imposing of a $40,000 USD Kenyan import tariff. This tariff proved to be an amount too large for even Nash's Denver Museum to cover.
This complication led to the Vigango statues sitting in an airport storage locker for five years. It was only in July of 2019 when the statues were waved of their tariff and transported to the National Museum in Nairobi. It was here that many elders from Mijikenda villages attended to rejoice at the statues return. However, it would still be a long journey to identify and return the statues to where they belong.
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The Illegal Trade of Vigango Statues Continues
In a statement from Wolfe III sometime in 2006, he mentioned that he stopped acquiring Vigango statues sometime in the late 90s and only sold whatever collection that remained in his possession. But alas, the illegal trade of these statues continues, regardless of the curse they invoke.
Currently, the Mijikenda people no longer create Vigango statues due to the continued looting in their burial grounds and homesteads. The few that are still made now have their bases cemented into the ground to prevent theft. Regardless, they continue to be bought and sold by private art dealers around the world. With much effort brought to protect these sacred totems, the attraction of their unique artistry and infamous curses only adds to the appeal to acquire them.
The unfortunate truth is that many of the people who bought these statues were often unaware of their sacred meanings but soon learned of their curse's power. Many collectors assumed they were works of art from local Mijikenda artisans and learned of the consequences through nightmare terrors of old men screaming to be returned to Kenya.
Vigango. (Public Domain)
While some private art collectors may have been victims of cultural ignorance, it should be noted that the U.S. Museum collectors should be most ashamed for attaining such objects. Most curators, historians, and anthropologists specializing in African art should have been aware of their significance and, therefore, should have been the first to refuse their acquisition.
The Vigango statues are a clear example of the importance of the repatriation of artifacts and the returning of sacred objects to their rightful owners. They also call for the creation of better relationships between and among communities, so that western anthropologists, archaeologists, and curators will be more receptive to the collaboration, preservation, and studying of the past.
By B. B Wagner
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