Putting together Kenya’s missing cultural works of art

BY KARI MUTU

A comprehensive overview of abused Kenyan art objects can be seen in the Invisible Inventories exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum. The exhibition follows a two-year joint study by the International Inventories Program (IIP) to examine a range of cultural assets held in institutions around the world.

The IIP is a partnership between the National Museums of Kenya, the Goethe Institute, the Nest (Nairobi), the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and the World Culture Museum in Frankfurt.

As I walked through the exhibit, I immediately noticed several empty booths, visual evidence of the missing items. Lost works include ceremonial instruments, shields, pipes, jewelry, carvings, and much more. Although housed abroad, not all of the missing items are visible. In the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, 82 of 83 Kenyan pieces were not exhibited in public.

On two walls of the exhibit were printouts of thousands of bar codes representing the missing items and the sheer number of items that were stolen from Kenya during the colonial days. The artifacts were collected or forcibly abused by various European characters, including explorers, missionaries and military personnel.

Koitalel Arap Samoei scalp

The exhibition focuses primarily on German museums, but also reviews works in other countries such as the remains of “The Maneaters of Tsavo” in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

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The two mane-less lions terrorized workers during the construction of the Uganda Railway in 1898 and temporarily stopped construction.

The ivory inlaid kiti cha enzi (throne) of the Sultanate of Witu on the coast of Kenya was stolen during a British military expedition in 1890. After a gruesome incident, the personal belongings and the beheaded boss of the Nandi leader, Koitalel arap Samoei, were sent to London after his murder in 1905 by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen.

A more recent kanga, made in 1971 to commemorate the 8th anniversary of Kenya’s independence, was placed in a collection of the World Culture Museum.

As part of the IIP study, a digital database with over 32,000 objects was created that can be accessed by the public. It remains to be seen whether some or all of these will ever be returned. The African countries have generally not been very successful in this search.

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This article was first published in the East African newspaper on April 10, 2021.

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