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Regarding what should be the location of looted art

I believe 2020 has made it impossible for anyone to be still unaware of the presence of racism within many western societies. The  Black Lives Matter protests that took place globally aimed to change  the world. However it is 2021 now and white supremacy is still a hot topic in western media. This domination is caused directly by the shared colonial past some Western countries have with the countries they colonized. Namely, the colonial era established white supremacy, which is maintained by white privilege till this day.

Colonialism had a lot of consequences, one of them being indigenous art and utensils that were stolen from colonized countries. These objects  often behold financial, cultural and spiritual value and therefore in the new ‘woke’ era many parties are aiming for the artefacts to be returned to their home country. One being the Congolese activist Diyabanza, who tried to steal African artefacts that were presented in the Dutch Afrika museum and in the Parisian Quai Branly museum. He and his group declared that they did not actually wanted to steal the artefacts, they merely aimed to draw attention to where the artefacts should be located. With their action they aimed to bring the artefacts home, to Africa. A speech that contained this message was live-streamed. This speech was shortly interrupted by the museum guards. This occasion resulted in a lawsuit. The activists and their lawyers hoped that the lawsuit would provide more clarity on how former colonial powers should pay for their crimes in the past. Unfortunately for the activists, the Parisian judge declared himself to be unfit to make a judgement like this.

An organisation that is fully dedicated to informing people about looted art is lootedarts.com. Their website offers two fully searchable databases. These databases contain information and documentation from 49 countries, including their laws, publications and policies. On their website you can find the details of over 25000 objects of all kinds (paintings,drawings, antiquities) that are missing and looted.

In the Netherlands there was established a special commission that wrote a rapport about returning looted art. The head of this committee is jurist and human rights activist Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You. She argues that when displaying foreign art it is important to offer the visitor an inclusive and complete image. History should not be presented one-sided. Furthermore the committee wrote a rapport, which stated that if an artefact does not belong to a party it should be returned. This return would be an acknowledgement of historical injustices. Namely, the returning party acknowledges that the object was taken against the free will of the original owner. The rapport states that an artefact will only find its way back to its country of origin when the disowned party aims to prove that it belongs to them. With this condition a big responsibility regarding the return of the object is placed by the colonized party. This is very unfortunate, because I could imagine that countries do not always have the means that are necessary to come up with the demanded proof.

The New York Times also discussed the value of this commission and concluded that the Dutch art restitution panel showed too little empathy to the disowned party and sided too often with the museums. The article also discusses the Nazi-looted works that were conducted during the second World War. The condition of identifying the rightful owner is yet proven to be ineffective when returning looted art, whereas the Dutch restitution panel has denied some claims. The panel claimed that the object in question had become more important to museums than to the original owners, which is very painful.

To conclude I believe that there is still a long way to go in repairing past colonial injustices. On the one hand I think art, and the history that comes with it, should be accessible to everyone and that with the correct agreements the looted art can be presented in western museums with respect to the original owners. To some people the artefacts that are displayed in western museums might offer a way to catch a glimpse of their homeland. On the other hand it is hard to prove what artefacts were stolen and what art was gifted. This difficulties should however not prevent western museums from returning the objects to their original owner. I believe that the presence of looted art in western museum proves the continuation of white and western superiority till this day. Namely, the unwillingness of certain parties to participate actively in returning the art demonstrates that there still is an unequal power relation between western countries and the countries that were the victim of colonisation.

 


 

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