African of­fi­cials re­spond to France’s resti­tu­tion re­port

Sunday Trust - - FOREIGN FEATURE - Source:www.ny­times.com

Ini­tial re­sponses from African of­fi­cials to a re­port is­sued last week by France on the re­turn of looted trea­sures from the con­ti­nent re­veal the path to resti­tu­tion will be a thorny one.

The re­port, com­mis­sioned by Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron of France, rec­om­mended that all ob­jects removed with­out con­sent from Africa and sent to France be per­ma­nently re­turned if the coun­tries of ori­gin ask for them.

The first African of­fi­cial to re­act to the re­port, which has been met with trep­i­da­tion by some mu­seum di­rec­tors in Europe, was Senegal’s cul­ture minister, Ab­dou Latif Coulibaly. Speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence, Mr. Coulibaly called for the re­turn of all Sene­galese art­work held in French mu­se­ums and in­sti­tu­tions.

“We are ready to find so­lu­tions with France,” Mr. Coulibaly said. “But if 10,000 pieces are iden­ti­fied in the col­lec­tions, we are ask­ing for all 10,000.”

Senegal was one of the African coun­tries high­lighted in the re­port, which was writ­ten by two aca­demics, Béné­dicte Savoy of France and Fel­wine Sarr of Senegal. In pre­par­ing the re­port, the two trav­elled to Senegal, as well as to Benin, Mali and Cameroon, to meet with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, mu­seum di­rec­tors and art spe­cial­ists.

Mr. Coulibaly’s re­ac­tion, while not a for­mal claim, runs counter to the re­port’s as­sur­ance that its rec­om­men­da­tions would not see the wide­spread re­moval of all African ob­jects from France’s mu­se­ums.

“There is no ques­tion, ei­ther for us or for our African coun­ter­parts, of emp­ty­ing French or Euro­pean mu­se­ums to fill up African ones,” Ms. Savoy, an art his­to­rian and pro­fes­sor at the Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Ber­lin and a pro­fes­sor at the Col­lège de France, said in a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view with The Times.

Rather, the aim of the rec­om­men­da­tions is to achieve “a re­bal­anc­ing of the ge­og­ra­phy of African her­itage in the world, which is cur­rently ex­tremely im­bal­anced, as Euro­pean mu­se­ums have al­most ev­ery­thing, and African mu­se­ums have al­most noth­ing,” Ms. Savoy said.

Alexan­der Her­man, as­sis­tant direc­tor of the In­sti­tute of Art and Law, an ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion in Bri­tain, said the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of im­ple­ment­ing the re­turn of all Sene­galese ob­jects would be chal­leng­ing.

“France and Senegal would have to en­ter into a bi­lat­eral agree­ment, out of which a com­mis­sion would be es­tab­lished to de­ter­mine, on a case-by-case ba­sis, which Sene­galese ar­ti­facts should be re­turned,” he said in an in­ter­view.

The re­port noted that ar­ti­facts ac­quired through doc­u­mented trans­ac­tions could be re­tained by French mu­se­ums. “Not ev­ery­thing would re­turn to Senegal, even if the rather am­bi­tious terms of the re­port are fol­lowed,” Mr. Her­man said.

The re­sponse from the Ivory Coast was more in line with the re­port’s po­si­tion. On Wed­nes­day, a gov­ern­ment spokesman, Sidi Touré, said the coun­try had iden­ti­fied a num­ber of ob­jects to be re­turned.

“Ivory Coast has drawn up a list of about a hun­dred mas­ter­pieces,” Mr. Touré said in a state­ment. He added that specifics re­gard­ing the re­quested ar­ti­facts would be sent to French of­fi­cials ap­pointed to han­dle resti­tu­tion re­quests.

Mr. Touré said the re­turned ob­jects would go to the na­tional mu­seum of Ivory Coast in Abid­jan, which “is able to re­cover and ac­com­mo­date these dif­fer­ent works when they are back.”

The item at the top of Mr. Touré’s list is a cer­e­mo­nial drum from the peo­ple of the Abid­jan re­gion, which is cur­rently housed in the Quai Branly Mu­seum in Paris.

France holds at least 90,000 sub-Sa­ha­ran ar­ti­facts, of which 70,000 are in the Quai Branly Mu­seum. The re­port es­ti­mated that up to 95 per­cent of Africa’s cul­tural her­itage is held by in­sti­tu­tions out­side of Africa.

Af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of the resti­tu­tion rec­om­men­da­tions, Mr. Macron, who has been crit­i­cized for dis­tanc­ing him­self from the re­port, an­nounced that the Quai Branly Mu­seum would re­turn 26 ob­jects to Benin that were looted by French colo­nial forces in 1892.

PHOTO:

Senegal’s cul­ture minister, Ab­dou Latif Coulibaly, who on Tues­day called for the re­turn of all Sene­galese art­work held in French mu­se­ums and in­sti­tu­tions. Seyl­lou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Im­ages

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