On June 12th 2020, five pan-Africanist activists tried to steal a funerary pole Bari from the collections of the Quai-Branly-Jacques-Chirac Museum in Paris. This political act aimed at raising awareness about a subject that has recently gained in importance.
Decolonisation is a long process that does not boil down to the political independence of former colonised territories. European countries have accepted it (some quicker than others), but there is still some resistance and inertia in the process of getting rid of colonial inheritance in mentalities and in politics. It especially applies to the issue of (subsaharian) African art stolen by Europeans during colonisation. This problem which has long been ignored has led to thorny political debates in the past few years.
A very large part of the cultural heritage of African countries can be found in private collections and in museums in Europe. According to Congolo-Belgian galerist Didier Claes, 99% of African classical works of art are located outside Africa (and most experts agree that at least 90% of African cultural heritage is concerned).
France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and other European colonial powers are widely accountable for this asymmetry. For instance, there are 90 000 African works of art in France, 46 000 of which were acquired during the colonial era. It is not just an issue of money. Many of these artworks had a symbolic, spiritual or religious meaning. Therefore they are key elements in order to understand the roots and the culture of this continent.
The Report on the restitution of African heritage (by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwin Sarr) clearly states the paradigm shift that French president Emmanuel Macron has endeavoured to make. Restitution would only concern works of art that have either been looted or acquired under unfair conditions. It includes objects taken during « military confrontations », items acquired by members of the colonial administration between 1885 and 1960, objects taken during European « scientific missions » before 1960, and eventually the works of art that had been lent by African institutions to foreign museums and that were never given back. These categories were defined because it is very tough -if not impossible- to prove that an object was stolen or that the contract of sale is invalid due to a defect in consent. Therefore one has to prove that a piece of art was correctly acquired, otherwise it is considered as stolen and should be restituted.
We often hear the argument that since many pieces of art were stolen throughout history, the restitution of African artworks would give credit to many other claims: for example,Greece could ask Britain to give back the Parthenon marbles... Eventually, it would lead to chaos in the world of art. But the specificity of African art is that African themselves do not have access to it. That is the very reason why we cannot compare it to other examples. For example, the restitution of pieces of art stolen from Jews during World War II has created a legal precedent for the current claims.
However, there remains a debate between advocates of a total and unconditional restitution (such as the authors of the Restitution report) and supporters of circulation of cultural goods. Of course, this debate worries many museums, art galleries and curators, who tend to refuse the paradigm shift. The brand-new Humboldt-Forum in Berlin is a casein point: he had barely opened when many started speaking up against its collections made of «Raubkunst » (literally « stolen art ») from former German colonies in Africa.
Eventually, the whole question does not come down to art and culture. « Thinking about restitution involves much more than just exploring the past: it is first and foremost about building bridges to more equitable future relationships. », the report says. The debate on restitution could force some countries to conduct a painful introspection into a repressed colonial past. It is the case of Germany, whose colonial past has often been overshadowed by the memory of nazism.
There have already been some restitutions, but they were mostly made by private curators. For example, in 2014, a descendant of a British settler returned two bronzes statues stolen in the 19th century during the sacking of a palace in Nigeria to a traditional leader.
Some countries such as France have also started returning some pieces of art. Two weeks ago, the French Assembly unanimously adopted in first reading the draft law on the restitution of cultural property to Benin and Senegal. Twenty-six pieces of the"Treasure of Behanzin" looted from the Abomey Palace in 1892 will leave the Quai-Branly Museum for Benin.
Even though we can only appreciate these gestures, we must also realise that it represents a small share of stolen African art. If President Macron (or any other European leader) decides to massively restitute stolen pieces of art that African countries have been claiming for a long time, it could turn the tide and lead to a structural change in mentalities.
In case of a massive restitution, the question arises as to how and where these works of art will be reintroduced. The instability of some countries fuels concerns about their proper conservation. Furthermore, many pieces of art were used during rituals and ceremonies in places of worship or power which do not necessarily exist anymore, as customs have evolved and museums have blossomed on the continent. For example, the objects that France is giving back to Benin will be exhibited in the brand-new Abomey museum in Ouagadougou. This problematic calls for deep reflections and important choices, but these decisions are up to African people and institutions - once the works of art have been returned.
sources: The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.Toward a New Relational Ethics, byBénédicte Savoy and Felwin Sarr, 2018.
Credits for the images : Anoushka Khadwala, Shutterstock/Hunter Bliss Images, EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON