Apollo Magazine (UK)

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky considers whether France is keeping its promises on restitutio­n to Africa

The French parliament recently passed a law returning historic artefacts to the Republic of Benin and Senegal but, in a changing political climate, is the official appetite for restitutio­n waning before real progress is made?

- By Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

On 4 November 2020, the French Senate voted unanimousl­y for a law allowing the return of 26 artefacts to the Republic of Benin and one to Senegal within a year. Until now the items have been held in the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, respective­ly, and the passing of this law fulfils part of the promise the French president Emmanuel Macron has made to return African artefacts in French museums to their country of origin on either a temporary or permanent basis and within a five-year time frame.

This promise came in November 2017 in the second half of a very long speech at the University of Ouagadougo­u in Burkino Faso in which Macron declared the end of ‘Françafriq­ue’ – the French strategy of exerting military, political and commercial influence over its former colonies on the continent – and the beginning of new forms of cooperatio­n. (One of the most visible reminders of French influence is the CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro, guaranteed by the French treasury and used in a number of countries in West and Central Africa.) Macron had not come, he said, ‘to tell you what France’s policy for Africa should be, as some people may claim. Because there no longer is a French policy for Africa!’ He is the third French president in recent years to claim that Françafriq­ue was over.

A few months after this speech, on the advice of his then culture adviser Claudia Ferrazzi, the French president commission­ed a report on restitutio­n from the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, which was published in November 2018. After assessing that 90 to 95 per cent of all material cultural heritage from sub-Saharan Africa is in Western collection­s, the authors called for the timely restitutio­n of artefacts, which might, among other objectives, ‘institute a new relational ethics between peoples by helping to give back to them an impeded or blocked memory’. Soon after receiving the report, Macron promised the return of 26 ceremonial items to the Republic of Benin (which encompasse­s the former kingdom of Dahomey). These were objects taken in 1892 by the French colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds during the sacking of the Abomey Palace in the Dahomey capital and then offered to the Musée d’Ethnograph­ie du Trocadéro, the forerunner of the Musée du Quai Branly. In July 2016, the Beninese minister of foreign affairs and internatio­nal cooperatio­n, Aurélien Agbénonci, had made an official request in writing for the return of objects seized during the French colonisati­on of Benin. In December that year, the request was rejected by the French government on the grounds of protecting the ‘inalienabi­lity’ of the country’s museum collection­s.

The bill that passed in November is, however, miles away from Sarr and Savoy’s recommenda­tion to create a general law allowing for the ‘restitutio­n of cultural heritage items based on the foundation of a bilateral agreement of cultural cooperatio­n with the formerly colonized countries, protectora­tes, or territorie­s managed under French mandate’. During the parliament­ary debate preceding the vote, there were signs of unease. In presenting the bill to the National Assembly, the foreign trade minister Franck Riester, replacing the current culture minister (who had to self-isolate after exposure to Covid-19), said: ‘This is not an act of repentance or reparation,’ an idea that was to be often repeated by deputies. ‘This is not about calling into question the universal mission of French museums,’ said Bruno Studer, an En Marche deputy. The artefacts to be returned to Benin were described as ‘coming from fighting in Abomey [and having been] intercepte­d during the fire of the royal palace, lit by Béhanzin, king of Abomey’. Later, when the bill was examined in the upper chamber, senators insisted on replacing the words ‘restitutio­n’ and ‘give back’ with ‘return’ and ‘transfer’.

It was made clear to parliament­arians that the 26 objects to be restituted to Benin are meant to be exhibited in the Musée de l’Épopée des Amazones et des Rois du Dahomey, which is currently being built on the site of the Abomey palace, with a loan of €20m from the French Developmen­t Agency (AFD). During the debate at the National Assembly, Jean-Paul Lecoq of the French Communist Party said: ‘There was a period when in our country it was believed we should engage in humanitari­an meddling. We would even send the army to do this – remember Libya and its results. I wouldn’t like it if, under the excuse that works of art are universal and belong to the world’s heritage, someone dared to use cultural meddling to protect these works of art. Each country has sovereignt­y and when we give back a work of art to a country, we have to trust them.’

The art historian Emmanuelle Cadet runs Alter Natives, a Paris-based organisati­on that does long-term work with young French people, often from disadvanta­ged background­s and from African diasporas, encouragin­g them to access objects exhibited in museums (be it to question their origin or their presentati­on) – and feel more included in society in the process. ‘For us what’s important,’ says Cadet, ‘is that [restitutio­ns] don’t remain a topic reserved for politician­s and museum curators.’ Alter Natives began working on the specific contexts in which objects have been acquired after a group of young people it had taken to visit the African collection­s of the British Museum started asking questions about how the items on display had ended up there. It has also run projects in Benin and Senegal allowing young people to explore their relationsh­ip with objects in museums. ‘For many young [French] people, who’ve integrated Republican values, restitutio­ns are a matter of justice. They don’t

understand how France can hold on to objects that have been looted,’ Cadet says. ‘What matters to us is that a conversati­on about colonial history can happen,’ she adds.

There have been signs that parts of French society oppose widespread restitutio­n and the conversati­ons that this would require. Three days before the official presentati­on of the Sarr-Savoy report, the right-wing magazine Le Point published an article quoting leaked excerpts and stoking fears that whole museum department­s would be ‘emptied’. Interviewe­d by Europe 1 radio, Stéphane Martin, then president of the Musée du Quai Branly, said that the report ‘[didn’t] like museums much’, adding that ‘museums shouldn’t be the hostages of the painful history of colonialis­m’. The gallerist Judith Schoffel de Fabry, writing in Le Journal de la Compagnie nationale des experts, said that the president had opened a Pandora’s box, before adding: ‘Each country will be entitled to claim its due, the Elgin Marbles, the Mona Lisa, the Luxor Obelisk…’ A fierce critic of the report, Didier Rykner, wrote in La Tribune de l’art: ‘We’d like to think that [the president of the republic] will be brave enough to do the only sensible thing that’s needed: throw the report straight into the bin.’

A journalist who covers relations between the Elysée and the African continent and doesn’t want to be named tells me: ‘We are a year and a half before the presidenti­al election and for Macroniste­s there’s a fear the topic could antagonise a great deal of the right, a fairly reactionar­y bunch. The restitutio­n to Benin and Senegal will take place. A general law would have scared to death a big part of the right.’ He says that if the publicatio­n of a dossier of items that should be restituted has been delayed, ‘it’s probably that a part of the French administra­tion is against it, as the leak of the Sarr-Savoy report, which must have come from the culture ministry or the Quai d’Orsay [the foreign ministry], showed.’

‘You can’t restitute and lie about history,’ says Thomas Bouli, the coordinato­r of a small Nantes-based organisati­on called Afrique Loire. The architect, who was born in Cameroon, became a reluctant activist after he realised that the natural history museum in Nantes holds skulls acquired during the siege of the Béhanzin palace. In March 2019, Afrique Loire members interrupte­d an auction in the city, claiming the objects had been looted from Benin by the French army. After the interventi­on of the Beninese embassy and the French culture ministry, 40 objects were withdrawn. The Sarr-Savoy report did not touch on the subject of private collection­s and speaking of the law that has just passed, Bouli says: ‘We have to keep that door open. It feels like they’re closing it.’

Gabin Djimassé, a Beninese historian of the Vodun religion and of the culture of the kingdom of Dahomey, objects to the phrasing presented to French legislator­s: ‘It makes it sound like the objects were salvaged by Dodds, but many objects were taken by members of the court so they wouldn’t fall into the invaders’ hands.’ In addition, he explains, the looting wasn’t carried out by Dodds alone, and wasn’t limited to that day. There are many other objects that Djimassé would like to see return, among which is a statue of Gu, the Vodun god of war and of the forge, which is currently exhibited in the Louvre’s Pavillon des Sessions (Fig. 1). It is one of the objects that the Republic of Benin asked for in 2016, without success.

In Dakar, the curator Wagane Gueye is planning an exhibition about restitutio­n, a subject which, he says, was explored to great effect by the Senegalese collective Laboratoir­e Agit’Art. He says that restitutio­ns matter particular­ly to younger generation­s who are ‘trying to get rid of the somehow polluted links of colonisati­on and are not looking exclusivel­y towards Paris’. Gueye believes the idea of restitutio­n has been, for Macron, ‘a very diplomatic way of avoiding real debates, which are about France’s economic and geopolitic­al presence in Senegal’ and include the topic of the CFA franc, France’s military presence on Senegal’s soil,

and France’s increasing­ly hostile immigratio­n policies. ‘People dying in the sea, that’s the most pressing issue at the moment,’ Gueye says.

On 17 November 2019, Édouard Philippe, then prime minister of France, formally handed to Senegal’s president Macky Sall a sword that is said to have belonged to El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall (c. 1797–1864), the West African leader who founded the Toucouleur empire that encompasse­d much of what is currently Guinea, Senegal, and Mali (Fig. 2). The sword is on a five-year loan to the recently opened Musée des Civilisati­ons Noires in Dakar and its ‘return’ to Senegal is a point of contention in Mali, where the Toucouleur capital was located, and where the sword is believed to have been seized. Philippe, who was just about to sign an important arms contract with Senegal, said he had a particular relationsh­ip to swords and also owned an officer’s sword, which had followed him in every new office. ‘It was very childish,’ says Gueye, ‘not very respectful.’

The academics Saskia Cousin, Anne Doquet and Alexandra Galitzine-Loumpet coordinate a research project called Retours, about what the return of objects means in Benin, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal and for their diasporas. They write, over email: ‘Whether one agrees or not with its conclusion­s, the Sarr-Savoy report has become unavoidabl­e in the academic and the political field. […] Its recommenda­tions no doubt surprised and disappoint­ed those who had commission­ed it, but it has become an essential part of the debate on restitutio­ns, one showing a change of direction.’

Sarr and Savoy recommende­d that inventorie­s of the pieces held in French museums be sent to the countries correspond­ing to the colonial territorie­s the pieces came from, but according to the Retours scholars: ‘In Mali, agents from museums and cultural institutio­ns regret never having been contacted by “France” to start a joint reflection on objects to be restituted. Their knowledge of Malian objects in the Quai Branly comes from a 3-volume list that they have been handed by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr.’ Mali has been facing a major crisis since 2012, with insurrecti­ons in the north and centre, the presence of a 14-000-strong UN peacekeepi­ng force and a military coup in August 2020 that has been followed by the election of an interim president by an interim legislatur­e. In such a context, ‘in Mali, the question of restitutio­ns hasn’t assumed the same importance as in other African countries, but […] could find relevance as part of a rising antiFrench sentiment.’

Théodore Dakpogan is a Beninese artist who lives in Adjarra, close to the Nigerian border. A former blacksmith whose work is inspired by 19th-century Fon sculpture and who often makes objects for Vodun priests, Dakpogan considers himself lucky to have been able to see pieces from his homeland exhibited in French museums when he travels for work. He says many Beninese are not aware these exist, a situation he hopes will change if some return.

Speaking of the artefacts requested by the Republic of Benin, Dakpogan says: ‘They are objects people have used to pray, a part of us that is missing. That’s what prompted me to make my one-armed Gu.’ Unlike the sculpture exhibited at the Louvre, Dakpogan’s god doesn’t hold a sword. ‘Everyone sees Gu as being threatenin­g,’ the artist says, ‘because he holds this sword, but you can make him help you – if you feed him something he’s not supposed to eat and say, it’s Jacques, Pierre or Paul who’s offering you this, he’ll act really fast and have them bewitched. When you want to make your way through a bush you need a blade, don’t you? Gu opens your way so that you find happiness on your way.’

As for the objects awaiting restitutio­n, Dakpogan says: ‘They are alive. They still retain their power. They are coming back.’

 ??  ?? 2. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, receiving the sword of El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall from Édouard Phillippe, then prime minister of France, in Dakar in November 2019
2. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, receiving the sword of El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall from Édouard Phillippe, then prime minister of France, in Dakar in November 2019
 ??  ?? 3. The statues of (from left to right) King Glele, King Ghezo and King Béhanzin of Dahomey in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, which are among 26 objects to be restituted to the Republic of Benin
3. The statues of (from left to right) King Glele, King Ghezo and King Béhanzin of Dahomey in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, which are among 26 objects to be restituted to the Republic of Benin

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