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The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage #3: analysis of the situation, questions and solutions.


Cimiers de Danse, Bambara, Mali
Danse Cimers Bambara, Mali

This third part is for us the opportunity to present our own analysis of the situation in Africa and in Europe with questions and realistic solutions for the restitution of African Cultural Heritage.


The restitution, subject to debate, subject of many polemics, of unspoken words sometimes raises exacerbated feelings in both directions.

If we have our opinion on the question, we try to be objective by making an analysis of the reality as it is and not as we would like it to be.


In Europe, we cannot say that keeping these works for centuries without Africa being able to benefit from them is a "normal" situation as discussed in our previous blogs. As the report advocates, Africans must have access to their property for the present as well as for the future.

The looting of cultural property is an undeniable fact. Nobody can deny either that these objects are exploited in Europe by museums, collectors, auction houses..., in a word that they are the object of a lucrative market. It is thus also an economic stake from which the Africans do not profit.

This report, commissioned by France and by academics, was based on a serious study and seems to be criticizable only at the margin: the debate on restitution deserves less self-interested bias, less attitude of giving lessons and more realism.

Can we not see this as the beginning of a new era, the beginning of a fairer relationship in which everyone benefits?

It must be emphasized that the purpose of this report is far from being completed today and signs of a real willingness to follow up on it are missing from its sponsor. The mountain gave birth to a mouse because of the antagonistic reception of certain lobbies of the cultural world and certain parliamentarians who strongly slowed down the impulse of the French State.

The objects returned are derisory compared to the magnitude of the works held and create even more frustration and misunderstanding. And the very few works returned were chosen by France, a unilateral method far removed from the cooperative approach between States recommended by the report.



Who benefits from this Artworks at the moment ? and why Europeans must change their vision and bias


Masque royal éléphant, population Bamiléké
Royal elephant mask, Bamiléké, Cameroun

These artworks, for more than a century, have been exploited by Europeans who have developed museums. Thanks to this, they receive millions of visitors every year in dedicated cultural spaces: the Quai Branly museum alone, which interests us most, receives an average of 1,350,000 visitors per year (excluding the pandemic).

Scientifically and intellectually, these artworks benefit intellectuals, artists, researchers, students and pupils from Western countries.

They have access to these museums and their artworks like national and international tourists from developed countries. These African artworks are as much a great financial manna as they participate in the "greatness" of France: in its cultural, artistic and tourist reputation...


On the other hand, Africans do not have the right to see these artworks since coming to Europe is impossible for most of them today.

Even those who could afford it do not have access, in most cases, to a visa that has become an almost inaccessible sesame for the European fortress. This is even more true for African youth, who are suspected in advance of wanting to settle in a more clement land (the recent health catastrophe invalidating its attractiveness).

The African youth and its public do not benefit from it, neither its scientists, intellectuals, cultural actors, neither the artists from where a great loss at the intellectual, scientific, cultural level, in term of image and prestige with financial repercussions (billions of euros of receipts are generated, point of which we will return in our fourth part).

This model is not destined to continue. There is now a strong and demanding demand from the new generation.

Activists, intellectuals and the youth themselves, as well as certain governments and countries, have understood the interest of developing a cultural industry based on these works, not to mention the demands for reparations for the prejudice suffered during the colonial period, which also affects the cultural and cultural side and the spoliation of these cultural goods.

Let's avoid sterile debates on both sides, on the African side as well as on the European side: does the question "are Africans capable or not of taking care of these works?" make sense?

Does the first French restitution law live up to the aspirations and wishes of Ouaga?

As I said in the preamble, none of the report's recommendations have been implemented today, primarily in terms of substance or timetable.

I would like to remind you that the report presented a 5-year timetable calling for a framework law that would allow for a sustainable approach and dialogue between continents. To date, only 27 objects, including 26 in Benin and 1 in Senegal, have been returned by France through a law of exception.

Statues royales provenant du sac du royaume d'Abomey de 1892
Royal statues from the sack of the kingdom of Abomey in 1892

For the relations of scientific exchanges, the "circulation" of works (without even speaking of restitution), etc., Africans are waiting.

Some sharp criticisms without foundation do not help the situation: to denigrate a report and to call the intellectuals who produced it "biased" is not likely to calm the debate, nor even to treat it by wanting to disqualify its authors.


This report was commissioned by France and not by the Africans themselves and was directed by two academics: one African and one European.

France and Europeans should therefore review their relationship with their former colonies: they should consolidate cooperative relations, avoid offending populations whose mentality has changed and who are, for some, highly educated and committed.

The future of cooperation between France and these countries also lies in the form: the way in which the few artworks mentioned above were rendered is not the right one. The image sent by France to African youth with its unilateral decisions is shocking today: young people are aware of the stakes and do not accept to see their country treated as anything other than an equal.

Moving towards a system of cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity was a strong recommendation of the report. The figure of the dominant and the dominated, if it persists, does not serve Western interests: we are seeing more and more of this discontent expressed in Africa and in France through its diaspora.


Black Civilizations Museum in Dakar

In Africa today, more and more cultural infrastructures are financed by Chinese public funds.


In Senegal, we can cite the Grand Théâtre de Dakar and the Black Civilisations Museum (Musée des Civilisations Noires) in which China has been a crucial player. Its architecture inspired by African huts, its construction, its development as well as its financing to the tune of 20 billion CFA Francs (more than 30 million Euros) were the result of cooperation between Senegal and China.

For several years, Beijing has been developing a heritage diplomacy in Africa, even though culture was the preserve of France in French-speaking countries.

Why do Africans turn more and more to China for cultural cooperation if not because of France's retreat.

Does France participate enough in the emergence of sustainable cultural infrastructure?


I believe that these restitutions are a good opportunity to strengthen cultural partnerships with Africa in order to repair and make up for certain shortcomings and not to create new ones. Africa needs today a sharing of knowledge, actions of solidarity and not a relationship of "charity", of dominant/dominated between States to develop culture.

In the era of digitalization, facilitating access to these works not only for our academics but also for the younger generation must be made concrete.

So let's try to find perennial and feasible solutions!

Masque d'un génie de l'eau  Idjo-Otobo, Nigéria
Mask of a water genius, Idjo-Otobo, Nigéria

Are Africans able to preserve the artworks once they are returned?

The discourse of infantilization of Africans handled by others must stop. To think from the West that Africa would not be able to manage its cultural goods is off topic. Let us remember that these goods have been in Africa for hundreds or millions of years for some of them.


How could Africans have preserved them before they fell into the hands of Europeans if it was not through conservation!


Science and knowledge do not belong only to the West. Peoples capable of producing such masterpieces, admired and cherished until now, testify to this.


He who creates is also capable of managing and conserving.


The very principle of restitution should not be a subject of debate: it goes without saying. This does not prevent us from asking ourselves how.



Rather, the question is how? where? when? to whom? and how much?


Today, these works have a financial value and, in Africa, Islamization and Christianity have given rise to a different perception since the departure of certain works that cannot be denied. The peoples have been able to reinvent other works, certain cults have changed.

In addition, the fact that, for Africans, certain cult objects have a soul plays in the appreciation of these works. They are now devoid of this "soul" and "mystique".

I followed a report on the Quai Branly on the day of the inauguration of the Museum where President Chirac, founder of the Museum, had among his guests Abdou Diouf, former President of Senegal, Koffi Annan, Secretary General of the UN (United Nations) and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Indian belonging to the Maya community of Guatemala, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1992. President Chirac asked Rigoberta if she felt anything. When she touched the works, she said that she no longer felt any energy.

Works that served as objects of worship were considered gods with a vital energy and mystical power that accompanied them.

In my opinion, some works should be returned as a priority, such as those that symbolize the humiliation of a people or a king.

This is obviously the case for the treasures of Behanzin. The specific law of 2020 is not up to expectations and aspirations: only 27 objects were chosen by France and do not correspond to the choices of the Beninese. The Beninese are still waiting for the God Gou, an emblematic piece of art that is in the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre Museum. It is a real "star" artwork, emblematic for the Museum but first and foremost for the Beninese.

The controversy is likely to continue if France persists in choosing itself without any consultation what it "returns" or not.

The way and the recipients


If there is restitution, how can it be done concretely? Who is going to recover, some peoples, some ethnic groups, on one side or the other. These are all questions on which a clear decision will have to be taken, hence the important role of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the AU (African Union), which has included the subject of restitution at the beginning of this year under the new presidency of the Congolese Felix Tshisékédi.


Let us not forget the Berlin Conference of 1884 which marked the balkanization of Africa: peoples and ethnic groups were separated by land borders based solely on colonial interests without taking into account the peoples, kingdoms and ethnic groups who lived there, hence the separation of several communities which can make these restitutions complex.

For example, Benin and Nigeria share the same heritage. Senegal, Guinea and Mali share the heritage of El Hadji Omar Tall, to name but one.

Take into account the criticisms and make a self-diagnosis of our problems to find long-term solutions

Even if they seem unfounded, we must take into account the criticisms that tell us that we cannot keep our works: we must not dismiss them out of hand and propose solutions that are better suited to today's realities.


These works have been valued in Europe, have acquired notoriety and market value. In my opinion, they cannot be returned without clear conditions for their return: guarantees must be proposed by our States to continue their conservation and, above all, their valorization.

I am dubious about the idea of returning them to ethnic groups and families, knowing the problems that this may pose beyond the very fact of maintaining and conserving them.

My reticence is based on the value acquired by these works and the conflicts that this can generate within a family and an ethnic group that will inherit them. With this kind of restitution, there is a risk of finding them in black markets, sold as contraband, or destroyed during a conflict or an attack on a village.

These are our realities. To say that we will do what we want with them is not to show responsibility: we must find solutions.

One can understand the fact of saying it as a provocation in front of the unfounded and acerbic criticisms of the very principle of restitution but it is not a realistic argument.

These works have a market value today: this changes their status and the way they should be apprehended!

And if, each time, these criticisms are returned to us, it is because past facts are stubborn and ready to resurface. So let's settle these basic problems already!

In my opinion, if these works leave a museum, they must return to a museum or a place that, even if it is not specially made on a European model that is sometimes inappropriate, is a place structured and managed by the State or through partnerships between the State, families and communities trained to value heritage. We need guarantees, security with a co-management between our States, municipalities and communities.

A good number of objects in some museums have disappeared because of wars or illicit trafficking, which cannot be denied. Recently, in a report on the conflict in the Central African Republic, the curator of the Bangui Museum deplored the lack of means as well as the theft and concealment of many objects.

In Côte d'Ivoire also in 2011, in the aftermath of the post-election crisis, the Museum of Civilization of Côte d'Ivoire was vandalized. Hundreds of works of art had been stolen, including a whole collection within the museum itself.


Now, this type of drift is common in countries at war and it is not unique to Africa. Let's not forget that it was the case during the Second World War with the Nazis who stole many works of art by despoiling many owners and institutions. Under Napoleon or between 1796 and 1814, some 500 works of art were confiscated by France from Italy, to mention only these two examples.

More recently, some works of art from Croatian and Bosnian collections were damaged in the heart of Europe in the 90s.

Masque N'Domo XIX siècle du Mali
Mask N'Domo XIX siècle, Mali

What has been done with the pieces left on the continent?

The strength of Africa, beyond the material goods looted, is to have kept the immaterial good, the thought and the oral culture. Felwine Sarr expressed it well again recently, on the occasion of the tribute to the 100 years of Amadou Makhtar Mbow by speaking of "trace".

Africa has resisted despite the assimilation policy instituted by the French before and after colonization.

In Africa, the oral tradition is very important and is transmitted from generation to generation and this in spite of slavery and colonization. It has endured.


The culture, this strength of Africa, has, despite all these attacks, been perpetuated.

This oral cultural heritage is a common good that many people envy us today: in Africa, culture is present everywhere and accompanies us every day in our lives until death.


At most, we can regret that these immaterial and material goods are not sufficiently valued by our cultural policies and are sometimes valued from outside.



The last part soon…


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



Rapport restitution patrimoine culturel
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