Kenya wants its treasures back – and is already exhibiting replicas | national geography

“The most important ritual at Luo is the funeral,” Obure explains. ‘They believe in an afterlife and think the dead deserve a nice goodbye.’ A few days after someone dies, Luo de tero buru on, a farewell ceremony. “People then dress up as warriors and chase away everything that brings death. They carry spears and a shield, and you try to pretend to be a warrior. ‘

Many Luo wore headgear decorated with ostrich feathers or made of skins from other animals. ‘Such a headgear is creepy! They’re there to make you look dangerous! ‘ says Obure.

Obuny Makhongos, curator-volunteer at the small museum, puts on a banana leaf headgear that was once worn by warriors before or after combat. He has reconstructed the ornament from a photo he found and does not know where the original is. Like the plastic replicas from the 3D printer “this is an imitation of what we do not currently own.”

They are just two art treasures that are only memories for Africans. According to Obure, many of the items were taken by Christian missionaries or their followers. But the worst thing, he says, is not that they have been stolen, but that their meaning is still misunderstood.

Cultural misunderstandings

The debate over the return of African art treasures is not only about who owns them, but also about who tells the stories behind them. Often, Western anthropologists and curators err. Take the type of Luo headgear that was recreated with a 3D printer. In Western collections, these attire are often referred to as objects worn by chiefs. But Luo had no chiefs.

“The chief was an invention of the British Colony Administration,” says project coordinator Ondeng. Colony traders may have intentionally attributed a malfunction to these objects. “If you just sold them as headgear, you would not get money for them. But if you say they belong to a “chief”, you increase the price. You make the object more valuable than it is. ‘

The reality is that with Luo, everyone older has one apartment as a status symbol, in other words a headdress of banana leaves. The story behind apartment That is also why, according to Ondeng, “we from the global south should be the leaders in this research,” not European or North American scientists.

Another Kenyan object that is often misunderstood is ndome† This item is commonly referred to as a war shield and appears along with other weapons, but in reality it is a shield used during rites of passage for Kikuyu boys. Some Western curators still make this mistake, says Ondeng ‘. “It’s a pretty misinterpretation because it has nothing to do with warfare at all.”

‘That ndome It’s part of the identity of a Kikuyu boy, “said Leah Njoroge, who works in Thingira Culture Village, an hour and a half from Nairobi. ‘If he is a ndome it means he has become a real man. You have then met the qualities of a real man in that society. You have a sense of norms’.

But according to her, that sense of norm is lost with the objects they incarnate, with devastating consequences. “Culture is like a railway and we are currently off track.”

It is impossible to determine how many African objects are stored in Western museums, Njoroge says. Some of these things she knows only from movies, such as the pearl necklace in the movie Black Panther is worn by the famous Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o. “That object is ours, but it’s not even in Africa,” she sighs.

Njoroge estimates that there are no more than ten originals ndomer in the Kikuyu tribe. When the team gave her a 3D replica, she said, “It’s not the same. I’m not against paste and cut, but let’s get the original. Let’s bring these items back to their culture. They should be here.”

New look at museums

In the Kisumu Museum’s only museum room, the tile floor is worn and the ceiling shows brown stains from water damage. Rose Akinyi Otieno, a 23-year-old curatorial volunteer, welcomes visitors with a smile and tries to dampen their expectations.

“People ask why we don’t have this or that,” she says. The Kisumu Museum exhibits only a few objects, a fraction of what can be seen at a British Museum or a ‘Met’. Asked if it makes sense to make 3D replicas of stolen art treasures, Otieno replied: “I may be biased, but I think the originals should be taken home and the replicas should be sent to museums outside Kenya.”

Tiberius Otieno, a 64-year-old man who talks to Luo elders to gather oral stories about important cultural treasures (and who is not related to curator Rose), agrees. According to him, many items have fallen out of use or have been lost over time. But the objects that have survived are far from their proper place.

Tiberius believes that Western museums exploit African culture by exhibiting its art treasures as ‘tourist attractions’. If Western museums returned these objects, “we would use them to educate the public. It is very important that these artifacts are returned so that we can reconstruct the past for the benefit of the next generation. Foreign tourists should then come here to see our culture. On-site.’

But some younger Kenyans see it differently.

“The artifacts should stay there so you can learn more about them,” said 18-year-old Daniel Ochieng, one of about 60 high school students who recently visited the Kisumu Museum. “Africans were considered people without culture. But if you show more of our culture, they realize that it’s not okay. ‘

Omondi Philster (17) nodded in agreement. But she added that ‘we should be able to travel so we can see these goods in Europe or the United States. Perhaps these objects promote kindness and cultural understanding. ‘

The reality is that most Kenyans do not have the means to go and see these art treasures abroad. ‘If the elderly want to visit their objects, they have to apply for a visa. How can they afford it? ‘ says Njeri Gachihi, a researcher at the National Museums of Kenya.

Gachihi rejects one of the arguments against returning African museum treasures, namely that there are no suitable museums and depots in African countries to preserve these objects properly. “Even though we said we would destroy them, turn them into firewood – that’s our right,” she says. “Because these objects are ours.”

A showdown with the colonial heritage could also mean a reformulation of the whole idea of ​​the museum, says Kenya’s digital heritage expert Chao Tayiana. Tayiana founded the African Digital Heritage Collective, which seeks to preserve and promote African culture through education and digital technology.

“We know museums as a foreign invention that displays objects taken from their original location and which removes history,” said Tayiana, co-founder of the Museum of British Colonialism, which explores the violent history of British colonialism and British procurement. of African art treasures is seen in a critical light. ‘One of the biggest injustices associated with the idea of ​​the museum is that museums determine what is important and what is not. But whose task is it to document history? We have our own stories to tell. ‘

If Europe wants to face its colonial past, the continent may have to rethink the whole concept of the museum, according to Tayiana. ‘What do you want a museum to do? Should it be a place to sit and talk? Where can you touch objects? It’s about a new kind of imagination, “she says.

“This is a first step, and this is only the beginning,” said Leonie Neumann, curator of African collections at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, where 3D scans of five Kenyan objects were made from the museum for the initiative. “We are guardians of these objects, and it is quite clear that it is not fair for some of them to be here.”

According to Neumann, museums present a distorted picture. ‘Many collectors and art dealers were white old men. Most of them were interested in weapons, which is why we have a lot of weapons in our depots, ”says Neumann. ‘It is the danger of such ethnographic collections, namely, that they reflect a particular time in which these objects were used. It’s about one snapshot, one part of a community – not the complete picture. ‘

According to Neumann, there is no reason for museums to keep these originals. “We can talk about an art object without exhibiting it. It’s more about history and context, ”she says. ‘Do we really need these originals for that? No, I think not. If society really wants them back and they are objects they can use in their lives, why store them in our depots where no one sees them? ‘

What is the value?

In the shadow of the yago, Obure explains that European robbery and the purchase of Kenyan art treasures resonate to this day.

“If someone wants to crack and weaken you, they will find something very important for you and take it from you.” According to Obure, that was what the British did when they colonized Kenya. By stealing items that made the Luo’s what they were, ‘they replaced our culture with theirs.

‘Suppose you go to Britain. You take the crown jewels and take them to Kenya, where you show them off, tell a wrong story about them and label them wrong, “says Obure. ‘For us, that jewelry is just a work of art. To them, it is a symbol of the nation. How to reduce a symbol to a museum work? We can not do that to them. Why did they do that to us? ‘

For Westerners, an African object is “just a museum piece,” Obure says. ‘It’s different for us. It’s energy. ‘ He picks up a long, slender spear with an iron tip. With this spear he feels a bond to his grandfather, who used this spear for hunting.

It is a band that 3D replicas can not evoke, says Ayub Oginga Anyango (60), who came to see Obure during the yago that sunny day. “If you bring us plastic objects, it means we would only be interested in the work of art, but not in its spirit,” says Anyango. ‘We are not interested in the object, but in the spirit of it – and it is something that cannot be replaced by plastic.’

“The Nairobi National Museum displays bullets drawn from the bodies of people – the bodies of Mau, who fought the British for Kenya’s independence,” said Kenyan documentary filmmaker and activist Jim Chuchu. ‘How can you digitize it? The feeling you get when you stand in front of these pieces of metal? ‘

“There are things in this country that you can’t digitize because of the amount of blood that has been spilled,” Chuchu says. “Technology can solve the accessibility problem, but it does not solve the legality problem of these objects.”

This article was originally published in English on

Leave a Comment