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The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage #1: A Brief History and Genesis

Dernière mise à jour : 13 avr. 2021

Pots with lids at the Quai Branly Museum
Wooden pots at the Quai Branly museum

The restitution of African cultural Heritage has in recent years become an important public debate which goes well beyond the experts.

And for good reason, because it touches on sensitive subjects such as colonization. I will try to clarify the question: its origin, the recommendations of the Sarr/Savoy report, the present findings and the opinions that we can express on restitution.

I must say that the subject is fascinating and generates a number of controversies I follow with particular interest.

More than three years ago, I visited the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, a very symbolic place. Following my blog on this escapade (see our blog), I wished to focus on restitution. But, since a report commissioned by the French government was due to come out, I felt it was necessary to read it first and then follow the reception of its recommendations in Europe and Africa, its first effects, before talking about it.

The time has come!

A brief history of the monopolization of African cultural Heritage

Let's first try to trace a brief history to understand how these pieces ended up in Europe, in which conditions and who owns them.

Two periods are to be distinguished in the process of the appropriation of African cultural Heritage by Europeans: the colonial period and the post-colonial (or neo-colonial) period.

  • The plundering of the time of colonization, from the 19th century to 1960

Thousands of objects were looted by colonial states or empires, moved from one continent to another, from Africa to Europe.

Abdou Sylla, in the journal Ethiopiques in 2005, put his finger on the paradox of Western missionaries inciting populations to throw away their heritage qualified as impious in order to recover it and then exhibit it as primitive objects in European museums magnifying their supposed civilizational mission before it is valorized by the greatest Western artists and collectors.

In France alone, there are currently nearly a hundred thousand listed objects from sub-Saharan Africa in public collections alone. Other European countries are not to be outdone: the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Italy ... but I will mention here a report commissioned by France, hence the particular focus (which does not fail to question the absence of an official pan-African approach, which I will discuss later).

These objects left the African Continent either during wartime takeovers orchestrated by generals of the colonial army, or were looted by "explorers", ethnographers, scientists, missionaries, and state agents, all of whom were supported by the colonial administration.

"Critique de la notion d'art africain" de Babacar Mbaye Diop

It must be said that the expeditions led by generals of the French colonial army against the African resistance were accompanied by real sackings of African cultural heritage.

Against kings, princes, princesses, called "rebels", the scenario was the same, testifying to the violence of colonization as well as its methodical undertaking to destroy traditions and the entire existing system of values.

This is the case, for example, for Behanzin king of Dahomey (now Benin).

General Amédée, during his punitive expedition, was not content to deport him to Martinique and then Algeria where he died: his palace was ransacked and everything was looted: his throne, doors, statues... A real sacking was organized with the end of the kingdom of Abomey on November 17, 1892.

These treasures, you can find them exposed at more than 6500 km and 6 hours by plane at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris or in Lyon and Périgueux (provided you have a visa, sesame inaccessible for many, and pay your entrance ticket to have the right to admire them).

Royal statues from the sack of Kingdom of Abomey of 1892
Royal statues from the sack of Kingdom of Abomey of 1892

This explains why Benin has claimed the return of objects, 26 of which are now part of the artworks legally "authorized" by the French parliamentarians to be restituted .

Another example is that of the kingdom of Samory Touré.

Regarded as one of the greatest African resistance fighters of the late nineteenth century, he reigned between Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea for two decades and was the victim of fierce armed reprisals. Finally defeated by General Gouraud, he was deported to Gabon where he died in 1898.

There again, a real war treasure will be confiscated: weapons, money, jewels, amulets, etc... They are now partly visible thousands of miles away too: at the Army Museum in the heart of Paris.

The same monopolization practices prevailed for El Hadji Omar Tall and his descendants.

Born in 1796 in Fouta Toro, he is one of the founding fathers of Tidjanism (the most widespread Muslim brotherhood in West Africa) and of the Toucouleur Empire in Senegal, which extended for more than fifty years from present-day Senegal to Mali and present-day Guinea.

Fiercely resistant to colonization, he mysteriously disappeared in the caves of Bandiagara in 1864. His son Amadou Tall succeeded him (1836-1897) and reigned from his capital Segou (now Mali). Faithful to his father's ideas, a few years later he came up against the troops of Colonel Archinard.

An important war capture will be constituted by colonel Archinard whose most prestigious pieces will enrich the collection of the Natural History Museum of the city of Le Havre, his native town. 518 volumes were added to the collection of the Grande Bibliothèque de France and the famous sword of El Hadji Omar Tall was given to the Army Museum in 1909 by Archinard while a hundred other pieces are now in the Quai Branly Museum.

Since 1994, his family has been demanding, in vain, the return of some of his objects and access to the manuscripts. It was only in 2018, after Emmanuel Macron's speech in Ouagadougou, that a door opened: the sword and its prestigious scabbard finally made its way home on loan for the opening of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar in 2018.

Ethiopia has been claiming for several years the murals of the Church of St. Anthony removed and illegally exported from Ethiopia since 1932 during the Dakar-Djibouti mission.

Today, they are still one of the leading pieces of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. An official request has been made for the return of these frescoes, but to no avail for the moment!

Many other expeditions or missions organized and financed by the colonial administration could be cited, as many opportunities for appropriation.

But there is no question of being exhaustive here and if I highlight a few cases, the list is long and concerns almost all African countries.

  • The looting from 1960 to the present day

After 1960, coinciding with the accession to independence, at least formally, of several African states, not only were the hundreds of thousands of objects already looted not restituted, but the appropriations continued on a large scale.

Mask Konden Malinké / Mali - Guinée
Mask "Konden" Malinké / Mali - Guinée

Under the pretext of ethnographical and archaeological missions, through art dealers aided by illicit trafficking of artifacts or purchases at derisory prices, often without invoices or written proof, African cultural heritage has continued to leave the Continent.

Today, a number of objects whose provenance is either doubtful or clearly the result of colonial history are still enthroned in the greatest Western museums or private collections.

Moreover, they are traded, sometimes at astronomical prices, in the world's most prestigious auction houses in Paris, London or New York.

A recent controversy around the sale of a pair of Igbo statues from the private collection of Jacques Chirac's former advisor on the "primitive arts" Jacques Kerchache illustrates the extent of the phenomenon.

A Nigerian national commission has unsuccessfully requested the suspension of this sale of statuettes auctioned in Paris that it believes were acquired illegally during the Biafran war.

  • The variety of looted objects

If one tends to focus on monumental artworks like statues for example, the extent of the objects to be restituted is incredible: cinematographic works, archives of all kinds, jewelry, gold thrones, textiles, photos, amulets ... the booty was gigantic!

It even includes human remains (skulls, skeletons...).

In April 2018, Hirut Woldemariam, the Ethiopian Minister of Culture and Tourism, will protest against the exhibition of two locks of hair of the negus Tewodros II, Emperor of Ethiopia: "Showing human remains on websites and in museums is inhumane".

Held by the National Army Museum of the United Kingdom, they will be returned to Addis Ababa in view of the outcry provoked to join the body of the negus buried in the Holy Trinity Monastery in northern Ethiopia.

Indeed, beyond everyday objects, some works have a heavy symbolic charge, like the thrones of kings Ghezo, Béhanzin and Glélé, and the statues representing them...

  • A numerical idea of the quantity of sub-Saharan artworks in Europe

A few figures taken from the report produced by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy set a rather telling scene even if it is fragmented, dealing only with sub-Saharan Africa and the only national collections.

Thus, in France alone, 88,000 objects have been listed. In Europe, a number of museums, from the Vatican, Italy to Germany, etc... are also concerned.

The British Museum holds 69,000 objects from Africa, the Weltmuseum in Vienna 37,000, the now named Africa Museum in Tervuren, formerly the Museum of the Belgian Congo, no less than 180,000.

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin, whose opening was contested on December 16, in a context of Nigerian claims to its masterpieces, the Bronze of Benin, has 75,000 in its collections.

More specifically, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac has a collection of 70,000 objects from Africa, 46,000 of which arrived after colonization. This museum, which since 1996 has housed the works of the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie (formerly known as the Museum of the Colonies), has the largest collection in France.

As incredible as it may seem, according to Alain Godonou, who spoke at UNESCO in 2011, 90 to 95% of African heritage is outside Africa!

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole would concentrate no more than tens of thousands of works out of hundreds of thousands.

From the genesis of restitution claims to France's commitment

Recently, the State of Benin has taken a strong political act. It echoes the numerous demands for restitutions made to the former colonial powers since the 1960s, including at the UN General Assembly (cf. the 1973 speech by Mobutu, President of Zaire, now DR Congo).

  • Of an end of non-receipt...

In July 2016, Beninese President Patrice Talon relaunched the debate with an official request to France, then led by François Hollande, to obtain the restitution of some thirty objects stolen from the Palace of Béhanzin.

The response was not long in coming: the Quai d'Orsay refused to accept the request. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied that these works "have been incorporated for a long time, sometimes for more than a century, in the movable public domain of the French State", and are therefore "subject to the principles of inalienability, imprescriptibility, and non-transferability". "Consequently, their restitution is not possible" concluded the french Minister.

Throne of the Guezo king from the sack of the kingdom of Abomey
Throne of the Guezo King

It is true that at the dawn of independence France, seeing the inevitable end of colonization looming, did not skimp on "protecting" all the objects from its colonies from inevitable demands by strengthening its laws.

At the same time, it dragged its feet to join the 1970 UNESCO convention on the illicit traffic of cultural property by not ratifying it until 1996.

Along with Zaire (now the DRC), Nigeria and Ethiopia have been among the most active states in obtaining the restitution of objects looted on their soil for more than half a century, not to mention Ghana and certain families (the Tall family mentioned above, for example). Algeria, for its part, has claimed the skulls of soldiers killed during the Algerian war.

  • …to a presidential commitment

In February 2017, during his election campaign, candidate Emmanuel Macron will recognize, during a trip to Algeria, the misdeeds of colonization on the people by considering "that France should apologize to those to whom we had committed these acts". These remarks, sometimes criticized in France, were the prelude to his commitment to restitution.

Wooden door of the royal palace (Kingdom of Abomey, 1892)
Wooden door of the Kingdom of Abomey, 1892

On November 28, 2017, during a visit to the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, the President announced his willingness to restitute, within five years, temporarily or permanently, the cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa.

If he is criticized for his paternalistic stench and his migration policy in Africa, he has on this subject taken the cultural world and, first and foremost, the leaders of French museums by surprise.

"African heritage (...) must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, Lagos, Cotonou" said the French President, to the great satisfaction of Beninese authorities involved in the development of memorial tourism, particularly in Ouidah.

Back in Paris, a mission of "reflection and consultation" for the restitution of African heritage was entrusted to the Senegalese academic and economist Felwine Sarr, author of the best-seller Afrotopia, and to Bénédicte Savoy, art critic and academic in Berlin.

After months of research and interviews, they were able to inventory the heritage present in France and give their recommendations...

Sources: Report on the restitution of the African heritage of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy / Photos: A.S, place: Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum

Quote "Critique of the notion of African art", Babacar Mbaye Diop, p.67

Rapport restitution patrimoine culturel
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