George Abungu is the winner of the 2012 ARCA Award for Lifetime Achievement in Defense of Art. Dr. Abungu, a native of Kenya, has served as Chairman of the International Standing Committee on the Traffic of Illicit Antiquities since 1999, and as Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya from 1999-2002. Among his many projects, he was involved in the return to Kenya of looted vigango (traditional grave markers). For more information on him, see the article on ARCA Award winners in this issue.
1. How did you bring the vigango back to Africa from the United States?
Many greetings from Nairobi. I will now try to answer some of the questions you raised. First let me recognize the good work ARCA is doing, and to thank the membership for the award that I feel is a great privilege to me and to Africa as a whole. As an archaeologist and a heritage professional, I have spent a lot of my working life in museum and museum-related fields. I have dealt with the protection of works of art as a field archaeologist working on the Kenyan coast, as head of Coastal Museums Programmes, as Deputy Director of the National Museums of Kenya and, subsequently, from 1999-2002, as Director General of the National Museums of Kenya. The museum, apart from hosting the Gallery of East African Contemporary Art, was also in charge of all other heritage in the country, including the Mijikenda Kayas, where many of the vigango were stolen from in the past.
I got involved with the vigango issue when I was still at the Coast of Kenya, working as the Coastal Archaeologist as well as Head of the Museums there. During that time we had to deal with thefts not only of the vigango but also the illegal sale and purchase of Swahili cultural materials such as chairs, doors and jewelry — all that qualify as works of art. With the cooperation of law enforcement agencies, we managed to apprehend a number of dealers who, unfortunately, due to the leniency of the law, often managed to get away with only small fines by way of penalty. However it was a lesson to others.
As for the return of the vigango to Kenya, this happened after I left the museum. However I started the process of the return by working with two scholars from the USA who had worked on the Kenyan coast and knew the vigango and the families from whom they had been stolen. We basically blew the whistle, as well as contacted these institutions during my time at the museum, to inform them that we knew they had these items and, as a country, we wanted them back. As my successors at the museum continued to follow up through official channels with the institutions, I continued to write articles using these as examples of illicit and immoral acquisitions. In the end, both the Kenyan government, as well as the concerned institution, took the action to return two vigango. Since then, many have been returned.
You can continue reading this interview in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.