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December 10, 2018

African artefacts


December 10, 2018

On November 23, France announced it was going to return 26 works of art to Benin illegally obtained after the French conquest of the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 19th century. The decision was made after French President Emmanuel Macron reviewed a report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte Savoy recommending the permanent return of cultural artefacts removed from Africa during its colonisation.

The report has been lauded as a ‘potential milestone’ in the struggle by African countries to recover works of art pillaged by Western colonisers. Others say it might set a tricky precedent that would accelerate demand from other African countries to have their artefacts returned.

The move by the French government followed a decision by the British Museum in October to return temporarily to Nigeria an undisclosed number of artworks stolen from the Kingdom of Benin (modern-day southern Nigeria).

I suppose these two announcements are a step forward – at least we are having a conversation about the return of stolen art – and I applaud Sarr and Savoy for documenting this appalling situation. But I find it difficult to pop the champagne and declare a brave new world on the return of 26 pieces when 70,000 others remain at the Musee du Quai Branly in France, not to mention the 69,000 at the British Museum, the 37,000 at the Weltmuseum in Austria; the 75,000 at the Future Humboldt Forum in Germany and the 180,000 at the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium – in addition to an unknown number in the hands of private collectors.

I especially cannot celebrate when the paternalistic narratives that keep the majority of the continent’s cultural artefacts out of the hands of their rightful owners are still alive and well, judging by the significant amount of subsequent comments made rejecting restitution.

Some have expressed superficial regret for the colonial moment, but underscore that the cultural artefacts are ‘better off’ in Western museums where they are preserved ‘properly’ in air-conditioned galleries. Many of these objects are made of wood, they say – how would have they survived in Africa with all the heat and humidity if they hadn’t been taken?

This is the logic of colonialism, a brutalising enterprise that cloaks its cruelty in benign concern that even fails to stand up to the laws of cause and effect. The question should be, how did the artefacts exist until the moment of capture in the first place, if Africans had not been taking care of them all those years?

We should never imagine that seizure of these objects was incidental or adjacent to the colonising enterprise – it was part and parcel of it.

“The type and quantity of the coveted objects … the close attention paid by European museums and libraries, oftentimes far in advance of the movement of the troops, with certain museums already assigned with the housing of specific objects immediately after their acquisition by the armies, shows to what extent the targeted and plundered locations had sometimes much more to do with the museums than [mere] military plundering”, Sarr and Savoy’s report states. In any case, fragmentation and enclosurewere inherent to the colonial impulse and continue to be perpetuated by a capitalist ethos today. The modus operandi has been, and still is, to destroy the bulk of a resource in order to create scarcity, and then directly control the little that is left, often for a profit.

Furthermore, the argument for ‘proper preservation’ betrays a carceral ethic that should not be left unchallenged. What makes us believe that sequestration and preservation are unequivocally good? For some of these objects, their circulation in the community, and their inevitable decay and replacement is part of their cultural value.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Who are Western museums guarding African artefacts from?’


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