Stolen artifacts returned to Kenya

MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) – A set of wood carvings revered in Kenya as memorials to the dead and coveted on the international African art market has been returned to an East African village after being stolen more than two decades ago.

The two hand-carved memorial posts – vigango in the plural and kigango in the singular – were returned to Chalani village, outside the coastal city of Mombasa, last week, said Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Minister Morris Dzoro. The pieces once displayed in two U.S. museums are now being displayed in a metal enclosure in the village.

Vigango – posts with vaguely human shapes, several feet tall and decorated with paint and bits of cloth – are often stolen and end up in souvenir shops or foreign galleries and museums.

It is usually hard to trace one of the carvings back to its owners. But in the case of the Chalani pieces, an anthropologist who photographed them before they were stolen recognized them years later during a slide presentation at an African studies conference.

One of the pair had ended up with a California art dealer and was purchased by actor Powers Boothe, who donated it and seven others to Illinois State University, according to the anthropologist, Monica Udvardy. The university closed its museum and transferred its collection, including the kigango, to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, in 2001. The other carving was traced to the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

Alerted by Udvardy and with her photograph as proof, relatives of the man who had erected them and who died in 1987 petitioned for their return. Kalume wa Mwakwiru had made them to honor his two brothers.

Hampton University officials said last September that they obtained the kigango legally from a company that had bought it from a California gallery, but would lend it indefinitely to the family.

“I think it’s great that it’s been returned to the family,” university spokeswoman Yuri Rodgers Milligan said Monday. “That’s what we intended when we loaned it indefinitely to them.”