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Reparations, Colonization, and the Return of ‘Stolen’ Art to Africa

Statues from Benin and Nigeria at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris


“When we reflect on the question of cultural heritage objects, we must understand that it’s not simply objects that were taken, but reserves of energy, creative resources, reservoirs of potentials…and this loss is incommensurable”.


-The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage


On a mild day in November of 2017, the newly-elected French president Emmanuel Macron strode into the main amphitheater of the University of Ouagadougou. He had come to perform the latest installment of a long-standing tradition among leaders of the French Republic, what some have, in the most blase terms, labeled ‘The Africa Speech’.

Along with president Roch Kaboré, the amphitheater, built by the late Muammar Qaddafi, was filled with students from all over the country who had been given two days off in honor of Macron’s visit. In the nearly two hour long speech that followed, Macron pontificated on what he saw as the foremost challenges faced by Africa’s millennial generation: climate change, terrorism, “families who have 7, 8, 9 children per woman”, healthcare, and what he ambiguously referred to as “the demographic challenge”.

French President Emmanuel Macron at the University of Ouagadougou, 2017. Image via Trace.

Despite these obviously meaningful statements, the moment most often recalled, evoked and discussed from this speech was Macron’s pledge for “the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa”. It was a point met with resounding applause from his Burkinabè audience and vigorous debate back home.

Exactly how much African Art is Kept in France?

According to the CBC, it is estimated that up to 90 percent of Africa’s art is housed outside of the continent. While the exact number is African art currently in French possession is unknown, The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris lists the number of items in its African collection as totaling 246 182 lots. It is a well known fact that a large portion of those works were acquired during the height of France’s colonization of African countries.

A mask housed at the Musée du Quai Branly, either from the Kingdom of Kongo or Kingdom of Loango, present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and the Congo Republic, exact origins unknown. Photo by Patrick Gries via artnet.

The following March after his speech at the University of Ouagadougou, Macron commissioned a report on African art in French possession that would include guidelines and recommendations for it’s safe return. At the time of this article’s publication, it has been almost six months to the day since French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr presented their 108-page study to Macron in which they argued for the unequivocal restitution of African art and antiquities to their ancestral homes. Since its publication, Macron has yet to make a definitive statement on the matter or propose new legislation mandating the return of art and antiquities to Africa.

As museum and archive staffers in both France and Africa wait with less and less bated breath, public engagement with the subject wanes in suit. However, the topic of stolen artwork goes far beyond Macron, Ouagadougou University and 21st century French politics.

African Art in France: Historical Context

As Savoy and Sarr’s report states, “The confiscation, or the transfer of art objects, objects of worship, or those merely used on a daily basis have accompanied the projects of empire since Antiquity”. By the beginning of the 20th century, the British and the French had together colonized more than 95% of the continent. The British took control of twenty-two African states while the French colonized twenty.

As Macron’s commissioned report asserts, “the right to pillage and plunder what had belonged to the enemy and the right to appropriate for oneself what one had taken from the enemy were the codified and licit practices of war” up until the end of the 19th century. In Africa under New Imperialism, the removal of art and sacred artifacts played an essential role in the subjugation of the continent.

Through ethnography, European anthropologists took the beliefs, laws, medicine, and art of indigenous populations and turned them into the evidence upon which they justified their occupation and oppression of the African population. Homeopathic medicine and cultural ceremonies were recast as evidence that Africa’s populations were at best primitive, child-like people in need of an Imperial parent and at worst, savages who needed to be wholly eradicated. Artwork and artifacts were taken to Europe be used as evidence of these ideas and became an important tool in converting the French and British public to the notion that they had a moral and ethical responsibility to intervene. Thus, “the exploitation of both the natural wealth as well as the cultural wealth of colonized countries is inseparable”.

Photograph attributed to Louis Sonolet, entitled, ‘L’Afrique occidentale Française’. The caption under the photo reads “Village chiefs going to deliver the proceeds of the tax collected from their people (Senegal-Nigeria)”. France forced taxation upon all subjects of its empire. Image via New York Public Library.

While the removal of indigenous art and artifacts in the name of ‘research’ has been largely accepted as but another branch of colonial violence (a perspective no doubt evidenced by Macron’s very pledge that it need be returned) the restitution of artwork to the continent has yet to occur. This is where another term and its adhering philosophy must be introduced.

Art, Antiquities and the Reparations Movement

The word ‘reparations’ and its attendant movement entered the popular lexicon in the late 1990s and was calcified at the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. As early as 1993, calls for the return of “stolen goods, artifacts, and other traditional treasures” were being made by reparationists in a formal capacity at the Pan-African Conference on Reparations in Abuja, Nigeria. Evidently, the return of art to Africa has been a central point within the broader call for reparation over the last twenty five years.

While returning the objects removed from the continent during colonial rule cannot reverse or even come close to compensating for their initial taking (or for the gross violence of colonization more broadly), to continue housing these artifacts in the gilded halls of places like The Louvre and The Musée du Quai Branly would be to disregard their functional importance as physical bearers of history for millions of contemporary Africans. But really, no argument is as important as the simple fact that these cultural objects belong to the African communities they originated from.

As Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, stated, “it’s entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks…These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today.” Whatever legal sanctions were put around their ownership by France during their initial removal and in the time since must be disregarded. It’s an initiative with the potential to restore, partially, the balance of justice that colonization has tipped for the last 600 odd years.

To view contemporary African artists from countries like Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Benin, and more, visit Singulart and search artists by country.

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