Re­turn the stolen art

French Pres­i­dent Macron has re­opened the de­bate

The East African - - FRONT PAGE -

Mag­a­zine, Page IX

WNew York Times hen Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron of France re­ceived a re­port he had com­mis­sioned on the resti­tu­tion of African trea­sures, he wasted no time in an­nounc­ing that the Quai Branly Mu­seum in Paris would re­turn 26 ob­jects, looted by French colo­nial forces in 1892, to Benin.

But that was as far as the pres­i­dent went in pub­licly en­dors­ing the re­port last Fri­day. Its au­thors, Béné­dicte Savoy of France and Fel­wine Sarr of Sene­gal, rec­om­mend that all ob­jects re­moved with­out con­sent from Africa and sent to France be per­ma­nently re­turned if the coun­tries of ori­gin ask for them.

Macron in­stead as­signed his cul­ture and for­eign min­is­ters to help ful­fil an ob­jec­tive he set a year ago: to en­sure that the cul­tural trea­sures of sub-sa­ha­ran Africa be ac­ces­si­ble in Africa through resti­tu­tions, but also ex­hi­bi­tions, ex­changes and loans. He also called for an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in early 2019 on the re­turn of African ar­ti­facts.

In Europe, the resti­tu­tion an­nounce­ment drew tepid re­ac­tions from mu­seum di­rec­tors, as it sets a tricky prece­dent. Lead­ers of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions were quick to em­pha­sise that Macron was speak­ing for France and France alone, but ac­knowl­edged that his ac­tions and pro­nounce­ments on African her­itage had en­er­gised and ac­cel­er­ated dis­cus­sions on the sub­ject.

The resti­tu­tion of 26 ob­jects to Benin “does not change the pol­icy of the British Mu­seum, nor leg­is­la­tion in Great Bri­tain,” said Hartwig Fis­cher, the di­rec­tor of the Lon­don in­sti­tu­tion, which has 73,000 ob­jects from sub-sa­ha­ran Africa in its col­lec­tions, many ob­tained in colo­nial times. Fis­cher said that while the British Mu­seum’s trustees were open to all forms of co-op­er­a­tion, “the col­lec­tions have to be pre­served as whole.”

Hart­mut Dorg­er­loh, the di­rec­tor of the Hum­boldt Fo­rum in Berlin, a gi­ant mu­seum of non-west­ern art set to open next year, said in an in­ter­view that Macron’s pledge to re­turn the 26 ob­jects had made is­sues of Africa’s her­itage “more ob­vi­ous, more vis­i­ble and also more ur­gent.” In the fu­ture, he said, Eu­ro­pean mu­se­ums would “have to re­turn” ob­jects in some cases, while in oth­ers, the in­clu­sion of arte­facts in col­lec­tions would have to be viewed as “the re­sult of Eu­ro­pean or global his­tory.”

The ob­jects that Macron is giv­ing back to Benin are a star at­trac­tion of the Quai Branly Mu­seum. Seized when French colo­nial forces ran­sacked the cap­i­tal of the 300-year-old King­dom of Da­homey, they were royal trea­sures that the flee­ing king left be­hind — stat­ues, thrones, and even the carved poly­chrome doors of his palace.

Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III of the Duala peo­ple in Cameroon, who runs Africavenir In­ter­na­tional, a non­profit that calls for the resti­tu­tion of arte­facts taken with­out con­sent, said that the French re­port was “the first step in the right direc­tion.” He added that such a po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment had been awaited since Cameroon and much of the rest of Fran­co­phone Africa gained In­de­pen­dence from France in 1960.

“This is not just about the re­turn of African art,” he said. “When some­one’s stolen your soul, it’s very dif­fi­cult to sur­vive as a peo­ple.”

He in­vited Bri­tain and Ger­many to fol­low the French ex­am­ple and com­mis­sion their own resti­tu­tion re­ports.

Sindika Dokolo, a busi­ness­man from the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo who runs an art foun­da­tion in An­gola and who has bought back looted African art, said the French pres­i­dent’s resti­tu­tion of­fer had “no prece­dent.”

“Macron has opened a Pan­dora’s box,” he said.

At the same time, Dokolo urged African lead­ers to re­spond quickly, be­fore a change of gov­ern­ment or mood in France — to “put their foot in the door be­fore it closes.”

Pic­ture: AFP

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