FOR ART… A French Report on Repatriating African Cultural Heritage Stirs the Pot

These are royal statues from the Palaces of Abomey in Benin, displayed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris; they are among the works slated to be returned to Benin as soon as possible (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr).

The long awaited report on the possible restitution of African art from France (to countries including Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin, Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea, Ethiopia, and more) was finally handed over to the Élysée Palace on November 23. The eight-months-long research process has stirred up some anxiety throughout the country since the French president Emmanuel Macron formally requested it in March, complying with his bold promise (made last year during a speech given in Burkina Faso) of returning plundered African heritage to their countries of origin.

It is noted in the report that some 90% of African cultural heritage currently exists outside of the continent and is displayed in major Western museums. French museums and institutions house approximately 90,000 African artifacts, with about 70,000 in Paris’s Quai Branly museum alone.

Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy were charged by Macron to develop a clear framework of what this restitution means, philosophically and politically, and what needs to be done in legal terms.

The report straightforwardly indicates that any object seized as a spoil of war by soldiers, bought at unreasonably cheap costs by merchants, illicitly trafficked by travelers and explorers, stolen, looted or taken by forced consent between the years 1885 and 1960 must be restituted to its owner.

The first step of the plan outlined in the report is to offer African museums and institutions access to a comprehensive inventory of the African art currently held in the French national collection, so that the opportunity to claim artifacts is not missed. The provenance of each object is carefully studied and made available to all parties concerned. There is no time restriction to plea for an artwork’s return.

Throne of King Ghézo (early nineteenth century) used ceremonially at the time by the king of Dahomey; Fon people, Afro-Brazilian style, Benin, Abomey, wood and metal (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

The report suggests a bilateral cultural cooperation agreement to allow a cross continental, cultural exchange between Europe and Africa. However, Eurocentric notions of ethnographic collections generally presume that popular appreciation of cultural objects, as well as possession of the skills and resources to maintain and manage them are limited to Western countries. In an interview with Le Point, Savoy explains that contrary to popular belief, around 500 sub-Saharan African museums of different standards are capable of receiving the restituted objects. The argument that African nations lack the resources to care for these artifacts is delusive. Africa can no longer be stereotypically reduced to a desolate picture or a singular story. More, cultural heritage is not necessarily handled in the same way as it has been in the United States and Europe. Contrary to the sanctified treatment of objects in these museums, there have been cases in Africa where artworks have temporarily left the museum to be used in rituals. For example, the National Museum of Bamako in Mali has allowed such practices. While the European and European-derived museums offer intellectually and aesthetically refined displays of ritual and ceremonial objects, they often dissociate these objects from the purposes they were created for. For some, masks and statues are not merely works of art.

Shortly after receiving the report, President Macron agreed to immediately return 26 previously requested statues that were taken as spoils of war from Benin in 1892. Stephane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly museum has welcomed the study, though before the report was published, in an interview with Paris Match in January, he explained Benin’s request made in August 2016 to repatriate cultural items was rejected due to its lack of a valid argument. According to Martin, the argument that France has committed crimes and now has to give artifacts back isn’t effective. He argues, “We must not see France and its former colonies but a continent that wants to restore its heritage and the international community that would be ready to help.” Martin expresses the need to “overcome this obsession with colonialism and neocolonialism”. Sarr, however, states that the loss African nations have suffered during the colonial era is non-compensable, though restitution of cultural artifacts can allow African youth to access their history, craftsmanship, and resources.

As France moves forward and for the moment, begins to implement the recommendations given in this study, the pressure on other formerly colonialist nations increases to join the effort to “rebalance the geography of African heritage”, as Savoy interprets it. Elsewhere, long-term loans are proposed as an alternative solution. The British Museum, for example, holds the most valuable collection of Benin bronzes in Europe and has agreed to cooperate with the Benin Royal Museum in Nigeria (scheduled to open in three years) solely through temporary loans. In Belgium, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren is expected to reopen in December, offering “a critical view on colonialism” to which a collective of Congolese associations and universities responded in an open letter: “We can not base intercultural dialogue on former pillaging by colonial murderers.”

This debate also encompasses Germany since the Humboldt Forum in Berlin is set to open in 2019. A vast number of items to be displayed in the museum have been collected under unclear circumstances. The institution’s reluctance to eliminate its Eurocentric perspective on cultural heritage and its disregard for the need to further research the provenance of its collection, resulted in the resignation of Benedicte Savoy from the advisory board in July 2017.

The report explains that the idea of long-term loans is not advised and transfer of ownership is the primary goal, in cases where cultural items are requested from their country of origin and proof of the existence of appropriate means to house the works is provided. It is important to mention that from a legal standpoint renewable long-term loans are currently the more plausible solution to the problem of the ownership. The law remains restrictive on the possibility of the deaccession of objects from the French national collections and defends this policy as an essential component of museum practice. The suggested restitution of African art also faces another legal obstacle. Unlike Nazi-looted art, what was taken in the former colonies are not recognized as criminally obtained under international law. Thus, at this point, the idea of restitution is based on a moral rather than on a legal duty.

Half-man, half-fish statue (called bochio) (1889–1893), Fon style; provenance: Abomey, ancient kingdom of Dahomey. This statue would represent Béhanzin, the last king of Dahomey (now Benin). His coat of arms featured a shark. To announce his intention to fight the French fleet which was stationing at Cotonou and crossed the sandbar every day, Béhanzin compared himself to the shark: “the daring shark has troubled the sandbar.” (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Reflecting on these deliberations, many still argue that European countries should be doing more to restore what was taken from African culture, though the recent debates around ethics and heritage already has had considerable impact. For example, starting in 2019, The German Lost Art Foundation, in charge of investigating and returning Nazi-looted art will additionally focus on collections from colonial contexts.

Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr compiled their report in a book titled Restoring Africa’s Heritage, released on November 27. Weather it is fully put into effect or not, it remains a milestone in the study of restitution of looted cultural property.

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