Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper explores how ethnographic objects themselves, such as vigango, are becoming ethnographic allegory in the postcolonial world. In literary studies, allegory has two meanings at least for the same words or things, and in the Mijikenda society vigango implies at least “a blessing” and “a curse.” Furthermore, as James Clifford (1986) argues I suggest ethnographic writing on vigango is also allegorical. Vigango are wooden memorial statutes erected inside or near the Mijikenda homestead and considered to be second bodies for the Mijikenda Gohu secret society’s ancestors.
Over 300 stolen vingango from Coastal Kenya have traveled and been found in several different museums throughout the US as commoditized objects on the global art market. Since around 2000, meticulous investigations have been carried out by two American anthropologists, Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles, in collaboration with John Mitsandze who was a Mijikenda curator at NMK (National Museum of Kenya). Exposure through published research and artistic media have produced what I call here a vigango “repatriation” movement.
The stories of the stolen and partially repatriated vigango can be examined through the concept of “repatriation” in the context of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted on 16 November 1990 as a United States federal law. This paper considers how repatriated vigango demonstrate not only ethnographic allegory as a new form of “salvation” but also a new “transit” form of the vigango (the object) in the Mijikenda history of mimetic faculty in the postcolonial world.