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(Boston) – In a rarity in the world of looted African art, a cache of sacred African artifacts is being voluntarily returned to the Kenyan government, thanks to the intercession of Boston University Professor Charles Stith, who previously served as a U.S. ambassador and now directs the university’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC).
Through a mutual acquaintance, Stith was approached this spring by Connecticut art dealer Kelly Gingras who discovered the nine wooden burial statutes in January at a New York estate sale of producer Lewis M. Allen and his wife, screenwriter Jay Presson Allen. The Allens bought them in Kenya in the 1960s and displayed them at their Park Avenue apartment. With the blessing of the late owner’s daughter, Brooke Allen, Gingras displayed the art work at her gallery until she was led to Stith who she asked to help return the items to their country of origin.
Stith, who served as ambassador to Tanzania in the Clinton administration, arranged with the Kenyan embassy for the repatriation of the Vigango totems, depictions of deceased placed by the gravesites of the Mijikenda people, who live on the Kenyan coast. On Monday (6/25/07), at a United Nations ceremony, Stith will hand them over to Kenyan Ambassador Peter Ogego. The artifacts eventually will be on display at the Nairobi Museum.
“The theft of African art has been a glaring problem for African nations, and in some instances looting has been so widespread that some types of traditional, culturally-significant objects are difficult to find on the continent,” said Stith. “We applaud Kelly Gingas and the Allen family’s commitment to voluntarily repatriate this aspect of Kenyan patrimony, and I am proud APARC could play a role in the return of these sacred artifacts to the people of Kenya.”
The nine totems, viewed as sacred to Kenyans, are carved slats from four- to six-feet tall, depicting a human face atop each. East African art is rare and the Vigango, worth up to $10,000 each on the open market, have been the target of frequent looting. Most are now part of private collections in the United States and Europe.
“Seeking the return of Vigango totems and other stolen African artifacts to their rightful owners in various nations of Africa demonstrates our appreciation for art and culture,” said Ogego. “The return of the Vigango reflects our mutual obligation and commitment to protect and conserve the rich diversity of African culture and heritage for the benefit of all humanity.”
Gingras said she hopes the voluntary return of such artifacts will become the norm in the world of art galleries and private collections, where often little attention is paid to an artifacts societal importance or its provenance. “Ambassador Stith and APARC were essential in making the handover of the Vigango possible,” she said. “This will be the first time a gallery, collector, or private dealer has willingly returned Vigango to Kenya.”
Stith founded APARC to complement BU’s African Studies program — one of the nation’s oldest, established in 1953. Along with maintaining archives of African presidential papers, APARC organizes forums regarding Africa’s global relationships, and hosts a residency program for African former heads of state.
Founded in 1839, Boston University is the fourth largest independent university in the United States, with more than 30,000 students in its 17 colleges and schools. BU has established an international reputation for excellence in teaching and conducting research on Africa, and has built and maintained broad collaborations with institutions in Africa.
For more on APARC visit http://www.bu.edu/aparc