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The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage #2: recommendations and present situation

I must say that the report entitled "Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Towards a new relational ethic" is edifying: it provides an overview of the issue whose brief history and genesis we presented in our first part.

The recommendations of the report on the restitution of African Cultural Heritage

The contribution of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy is truly to be commended first of all in that it brings the question of the debate back to the forefront while elaborating concrete solutions.

  • A legal procedure for restitution

The objective of the report is that all the stolen objects, illicitly acquired without proof, before as well as after the Independences, should be returned within 5 years in line with Emmanuel Macron's commitment.

This is why facts are established or put forward and evidence is recalled regarding the historical looting of the African Continent. Scientific research, statistics and figures provide reliable data.

To my knowledge, this is a first. It allows us to retrace the path of many objects, to have many details on their origin, the history that surrounds them, the context of their departure to France. Given that it was commissioned by the French state, the report focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, the main site of French colonization.

Woven loincloth textile, Quai Branly Museum collection
Woven loincloth textile, Quai Branly Museum collection

A research, no doubt to be completed, was therefore conducted from museum databases, particularly at the Musée du Quai Branly (see blog on the Quai Branly) which brings together one of the most important collections in the world. The report was also based on various cultural institutions through meetings in France and Africa with ministers, museum presidents, academics, jurists, politicians, cultural actors, representatives of civil society and concerned families.

This restitution first of all comes up against legal obstacles: the Heritage Code and the General Code of Public Property (CG3P), adopted by ordinances in 2004 and 2006 respectively, formally accentuated the protection of public collections in French museums, which are subject to the principles of imprescriptibility, inalienability and non-transferability.

This is why Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte de Savoy are calling for a framework law to amend the French heritage code.

This evolution should make it possible to restore the entire African cultural heritage while respecting the principle of inalienability that protects French collections.

In view of the magnitude of the African heritage at stake, it is not a question of derogating, on a piecemeal basis, by laws of exception, but rather of introducing a general principle of restitution into French law: "a way of definitive restitution through the creation of an ad hoc procedure laying the foundations of a peaceful process".

Initiation Mask Kebul (ethnie Diola) - Casamance
Initiation Mask Kebul (ethnie Diola)

The procedure would apply to both public and private collections thanks to joint commissions made up of the requesting States and France. It would lead to a cultural cooperation agreement to accompany the final restitution.

While the question of "to whom to return" is raised, the report considers that restitution can only be organized between States, it being up to the African State to decide on the spot to hand them over either to museums, local authorities or, in some cases, to the families or communities concerned.

The recommended approach is intended to be cooperative with numerous support measures from the States concerned, among them:

  • the fight against the illicit traffic of art objects of which Africa has been particularly the target since colonization,

  • cultural partnership agreements between the French State and the African States concerned by the restitution of objects,

  • financing actions, knowledge sharing and scientific and technical exchanges and training between States, museums and cultural actors...

Nkita bed boards, Téké-Tsayi population - Congo 20th
Nkita bed boards, Téké-Tsayi population - Congo 20th century

  • A restitution framed in time

Here I take up again almost in extenso the chronogram of the rather explicit report:

1st stage: from November 2018 to November 2019

  • Solemn handover of inventories of works from their territory held in French public collections to the African States concerned;

  • Solemn restitution of highly symbolic pieces long claimed by the States or communities concerned;

  • Joint elaboration, between museum and heritage experts in France and Africa, of a practical methodology for restitutions;

  • Transfer of the pieces to their countries of origin if the claimant countries consider that their infrastructures are ready to receive them;

  • Adoption of legislative measures and rules to make these restitutions irrevocable.

During this period, restitution of symbolic coins held by France is recommended:

  • for Benin, the principal works of the palace of Béhanzin: royal statues, the four doors of the royal palace, the royal seat, the thrones of kings Glèlè and Ghézo,

  • in Senegal, the sand of El Hadji Omar, the objects preserved at the Natural History Museum of Le Havre, necklaces, pendants, pearls and medallions from the Quai Branly,

  • for Nigeria and its Oba royal family, the objects coming from the Benin City sack by the British army in 1897 which occupies a great place in the collective memory of the country: figurative plaque, carved tusk, anthropomorphic head, plaque, royal altar head

  • to Ethiopia, the sacred paintings detached from the walls of the Church of Saint Anthony and those of the Abba Antonios Church,

  • 7 coins from Mali including six masks collected during the Laboret 1932, Dakar-Djibouti 1931-1933, Sahara-Sudan 1935 and Niger - Lake Iro 1938-1939 missions,

  • For Cameroon, the throne was "collected" in 1934 as part of the Henri Labouret mission.

Each of these first restitutions of symbolic works aims to initiate the process, with the other objects identified and inventoried to follow.

Timba drum of the Baga population in Guinea at the Quai Branly Museum
Timba Drum (Baga people)- Guinee XIXth

2nd stage: from spring 2019 to 2022

After the symbolic restitutions, an exhaustive inventory of African collections in France, a digital sharing of collections and a transcontinental consultation for the access and restitution within five years of iconographic, cinematographic and sound material concerning African societies and authentic works deemed important by the States or the Community concerned is planned.

Restitution also means the sharing of digitized objects, including with regard to the policy of rights to the image of societies photographed, filmed or recorded and the rights of exploitation.

The report calls for a single free online portal to facilitate access to works to individuals and institutions concerned in Africa and Europe.

And it encourages cooperation in "know-how" with the holding of bilateral workshops between the countries concerned involving curators, restorers, patrons, community representatives to accompany the return of works.

In line with the recommended legal procedure for restitution, joint commissions between France and each of the African States wishing to recover their heritage are proposed:

  • Examine restitution requests and issue opinions,

  • Define research axes to establish lists of returnable objects,

  • Recommend, on a case-by-case basis, the measures essential to the success of "departure" and "return" operations, (cooperation, provision of equipment, training, etc.),

  • make recommendations for the presentation of African objects in French museums.

Reliquary keeper figure at the Quai Branly Museum
Reliquary keeper figure

3rd step: from November 2022

The restitution process should not be limited in time, advocates the report and, given the slowness of the current process, it can only be approved.

Beyond the 5-year period, States that, for social, economic, political, etc. reasons, are not yet ready to start the restitution process will still be able to request it through the procedure initiated by the Framework Law on Restitution.

  • The restitution as a memory sharing tool

What popular appropriation is another fundamental question that the report attempts to answer.

For Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte de Savoy, communities, whether in Europe or Africa, have a vocation to appropriate this cultural heritage and must be strongly involved in the restitution process.

This requires a work of memory, history of the heritage, exchanges between cultural and scientific actors, but also cultural events for the populations in Europe and Africa: the idea of travelling exhibitions is evoked.

Beyond that, the authors want an online portal to trace the detailed itinerary of the objects with stories and general information on heritage from within and outside Africa.

For them, university research must have access to these restituted artefacts, but more than that, they must benefit everyone: not only a group of insiders or elites!

What progress in restitution, 3 years after Ouagadougou speech?

Royal statue, Bamileke population - Cameroon
Royal statue, Bamileke population - Cameroon

The report sought to promote a law reforming the French heritage code to facilitate restitution by amending its current principles of inalienability, non-transferability and imprescriptibility.

Beyond this purely legal obstacle, the promise made in Ouagadougou obviously comes up against the cultural lobbies and the reality of power as well as Emmanuel Macron's desire not to offend the bangs of his conservative electorate, acquired or assumed, in the perspective of a second presidential term ... hence the timid progress in France!

  • Under the fire of critics, a first minimalist French law

This report has come up against a lot of criticism in France, while its principles have been defended and supported only weakly at present by African countries, or at least through a very scattered and not very audible speech.

3 years after Macron's speech in Ouaga, 2 years after the presentation of the report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, the mountain gave birth to a mouse.

No legal proceedings reforming the French Heritage Code have been initiated. Only a first exceptional law was voted and published on December 24, 2020. Its purpose is very limited, far from the tens of thousands of works claimed: it restores 27 cultural properties from Benin and Senegal: 26 from the war treasure of King Béhanzin as well as the sword and its scabbard of El Hadji Omar Tall already present at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, on loan and then deposited since its opening in December 2018.

It must be said that in France, following the report, the lobbies of the cultural milieu, helped by some elected officials, did not fail to express criticism.

Stéphane Martin, President of the Musée du Quai Branly from 1998 to 2019, although he took part in the work carried out by the Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy mission, was understandably outraged, albeit very subjective in the sense that, if the Museum he directed for more than 10 years were to proceed with the restitutions, its collection would be reduced to a mere skin of sorrow.

The tone was particularly vehement during his interview with the Senate Culture Committee: he described the report as "a cry of hatred against the very concept of the museum, considered as a Western invention, as a quasi-criminal place in which objects are plucked, stripped and stripped of their magic".

Rather than using the term restitution, he pleaded for a "circulation of works", "sharing" through loans, deposits and a number of transfers of ownership".

Other voices have also strongly criticized the word "restitution", the very semantics of the term pronounced by Emmanuel Macron preferring the more neutral "return".

For colonial and post-colonial art dealers, he would insinuate that all the works had been looted when an organized trade had long existed.

They argue that African art dealers, during and after colonization, sold objects and that, in a context of societal mutations towards Islamization or Christianization, populations abandoned them with their cults and often destroyed them.

It would thus be thanks to Western work that these objects would have become true works of art, recognized at their "fair" value.

States themselves have sold works of art to finance projects, says the historian and art dealer Hélène Le Loup, quoting Sékou Touré's Guinea in the culture pages of the conservative French magazine Le Point.

Catherine Morin-Desailly, former president of the Senate's culture commission, said of the report that it would be "the choice of activists, not scientists. ...] The goods of African origin in the collections result from spoils of war, looting, theft, but also from donations, barter, purchases and direct orders to local artisans and artists."

  • A worldwide resonance

The resonance of the report first touched the European cultural world, which naturally attempted to react negatively to the Sarr/Savoy report's injunction to restore the African cultural heritage present in their collections.

Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, summarizes the 240 pages of the report in one sentence in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "The authors consider provenance research and the scientific treatment of object biographies to be superfluous" before regretting "the jargon of the report, dominated by an ideology of expiation and penance, [and] which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject".

Yet his compatriot, the historian Jürgen Zimmerer, believes that the report "marks the beginning of a new era. In Europe, people are ready to talk about restitution. And the time has also come to take seriously the legitimate demands that emanate from Africa and to gather around a table to discuss them".

The famous "Art Review", one of the reference magazines of the art world, did not make a mistake when it included Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in its TOP 100 in 2019 and then ranked them as the 3rd most influential people in the art world in 2020 just behind the Indonesian artists' collective Ruangrupa mobilized against the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

If "a part of society does not want to face colonial history" in the West according to Felwine Sarr, many restitution initiatives have been initiated or highlighted by his report.

Royal statue, half-man of King Glélé (Fon-Benin population)
Royal statue, half-man of King Glélé (Fon-Benin population)
  • The first returns of the African Cultural Heritage

Before the French law of December 24, 2020 (which does not mention it), Madagascar received on November 5, 2020 a canopy crown from Queen Ranavalona III, resisting colonial penetration.

After his deportation, his objects, considered as war captures, were kept in the Army Museum.

The return, 110 years later to the day (the crown had left the country on November 5, 1910), was a historical moment celebrated by the Malagasy people.

However, the epilogue is far from being finished since the country is claiming other objects.

At the same time, this loan, while awaiting the transfer of ownership, was decried in the French Senate, which considered it to be "a contempt of Parliament", with members of parliament speaking of a breach of confidence because it came under the "fact of Prince" Emmanuel Macron at the expense of the legislative power.

On November 26th, Nigeria obtained the restitution by the Netherlands of an Ife work from the country of the Yorubas: a 600 year old terracotta head smuggled in. Doesn't it symbolize an unavoidable impulse of restitution committed in Europe in spite of the reluctance of some people?

Other less official restitutions have already been undertaken by foundations, gallery owners and art dealers who are aware of the need to return Africa's cultural heritage to its Continent of origin.

The Parisian gallery owner Robert Gallois and his collective of antique dealers in Saint-Germain des Prés have invested in the return of African works by creating the Musée de la Récade de Lobozounkpa in Benin, near Cotonou.

For the past 5 years, it has been enriched by a collection of royal scepters of the kings of Dahomey, in use from the 17th to the 19th century, as donations from its initiators have been received.

In Senegal, in Djilor Djilack, Léopold Sédar Senghor's native village, the former art dealer Reginald Roux has opened the Museum of Art and History dedicated to the Cultures of West Africa (Mahicao) and exhibits more than 500 archaeological objects, religious objects, masks and statues, traditional jewelry, textiles, and ancient costumes dating from the Neolithic period to the middle of the 20th century.

And, with the emergence of a bourgeois class in Africa, rich African collectors buy African works in the world art market to build up a private collection that returns to Africa.

One example is the Congolese Sindika Dokolo, who died in 2020, owner of one of the most important collections. In 2014, he launched a quest to find the works of the Dundo Museum, looted between 1975 and 2002 during the Angolan civil war.

Pot with lid - Lozi population - Zambia 19th century
Pot with lid - Lozi population - Zambia 19th

Today, Benin, after having carried the fight by its current president Fabrice Talon and claimed the restitution of its heritage, says it is not ready to recover the 26 objects returned pending the completion of the construction of a Museum. Mali is also not ready to receive the works of its heritage.

But the process seems to be well underway: Rwanda, Côte d'Ivoire ..., many African countries are setting up new museums and are beginning to become officially active or simply to renew their old requests that have not yet been met.

This is the case of the DR Congo with Belgium, a country that holds one of the most important collections in the world outside Africa.

The idea of restitution arouses a lot of reaction and emotion. It revives certain wounds, truths and unspoken facts, a part of the complex and painful history that France and all the colonial powers of yesteryear share with the African continent.

In any case, a sustainable solution can benefit both parties and especially Africa.

Soon, discover our point of view in the third and last part ... and listen soon to our podcast on the subject.


Rapport restitution patrimoine culturel
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Photo and video credit: @jendalmart

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