George Juma Ondeng

Vigango post at Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, Germany. © Museum Fünf Kontinente

From Art to Human Remains?


Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich has a well introduced African exhibition which gives their visitors geographical understanding of the continent as a region. It is common knowledge that the global north has never invested in teaching the geography of the continent thus making it difficult for citizens to understand African countries, people and cultures. In some cases, even museums which are supposed to be centres of neutral dissemination of non-prejudiced information end up perpetrating stereotypes about regions of Africa through isolated exhibition spaces and choice of objects for exhibition. In some incidences, objects are displayed without geographical context making Africa look like one country.


My second observation is the curator’s text explanations of the objects as having been made as utilitarian objects as well in addition to being arts and crafts in Western art perspective. This is a fact often missing in most Western museums and which makes their museum publics to view African objects as purely works of arts thus explored for their ‘artistic’ designs. By laying emphasis e.g. on artistic values of objects, there is tendency to misrepresent and misunderstand people who produce them due to the differences in values used to interpret the objects which are far removed from the makers’ original intentions. It also makes it difficult for the local populations to understand what absence of these objects from local communities means to the producing cultures.

  • George Juma Ondeng
    George Juma Ondeng


    Given the ownership structures of museums in countries such as Germany, the local politicians will never support repatriation requests if they still solely understand objects as pieces of art/craft. It is high time we appreciate spirit, soul and body of these objects. To illustrate this point, I will use the three funerary posts, the vigango (singular kigango) from the Giriama Community in Kenya which are part of the museum collection in Munich. Museum audiences and art enthusiasts in the Global North admire the artistic side of these objects. The truth is, they are not objects according to the producing community. Vigango are souls of the departed elders and thus an integral part of the Mijikenda community. Vigango are also significant to the Giriama as a way of communicating with Mulungu (God). The vigango serve as media of communication with Mulungu since they are no longer trees (wood) but humans (spirits). The vigango are very tall and are made largely for those who have attained the highest status in the society. Vigango are anthropomorphic carvings. They are made using valued indigenous species of hard wood through a lengthy ritual process. There are also strict rules to handle a fallen kigango. Thus their presence in museums collections are highly contestable!


    Perhaps Western museums ought to exhibit the processes involved in making of these objects more. To have a better understanding of these objects it is important to learn how they are used in their original community. To make a kigango, an appropriate hardwood tree is selected and prayers made to sanctify it and transform it from being a tree to a human spirit. Vigango are normally handled with great care usually wrapped with white cloth and erected when it is still dark (around 5am).


    The vigango provide protection to the community and ensure the education and progress of the family and members of the community in general. The living Mijikenda believe that the dead members of their community not only have influence on them but also that their special needs must be met for which they would receive blessings of good health, abundant rainfall and bountiful harvest. Otherwise they would cause trouble to them when neglected as indicated by the presence of termites or snakes in the house. When a kigango falls down it is left to rot away, under no circumstance it can be picked up and given to a museum or treated as part of a museum collection. A new kigango would be made to replace it. They can be erected somewhere in the kaya or in homestead and as much of the kigango is under ground as above the ground.


    Understanding vigango therefore should move beyond the motifs and patterns shown in them and look at the cultural significance and what they represent in Giriama community. As human spirits, Vigango are revered in Kenya and thus treated as human remains. Therefore no one dares to tamper with the fallen ones for fear of the repercusions. Besides, it is locally known in Giriama society that those community members who were complicit in removal of vigango for sale as works of art met early death. While such assertions may be hard to ascertain, it shows how valuable they are to the local Giriama community. It is worth noting that this community reveres the remains of their elders in exactly the same manner they treat vigango. Which brings the question, if they are considered as human spirits by the makers, should museums keep them in their storages? Should they not be treated as part of human remains because the process of working the trees into vigango transforms the trees into anthropomorphic characters with special influence over the living?


    If that was to happen, first, the only vigango that should remain in Western museums could be those purposely commissioned by holding museums for purposes of advancing their artistic values. If such a kigango is to be exhibited, it should be accompanied with a community documentary which gives the community an avenue to explain to the world the role of the object in their community including changes through time and space.