Addressing the Issue of Art Restitution on World Heritage Day

Will cultural repatriation improve diplomatic relations between African and European countries?

April 18th, 2019
Hoëlenn Ayoul-Guilmard, News from Berlin
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On March 15th, Representatives of the Yawuru indigenous group from Western Australia came to the Australian embassy in Berlin to collect the remains of seven of their ancestors from the German State Ethnographic Collections, which were taken from Australia during the colonial era.

Such ceremony is part of a larger initiative from German institutions to give back to the people the remains of their ancestors which, up to that point, were kept in museums. Indeed, a week before, the remains of a king of the Yidindji people from northern Queensland were handed over to one of his direct descendants by the Munich Five Continents Museum. The construction of the Humboldt Forum museum, scheduled to open in Berlin at the end of this year with imperial treasures, has also pushed Germany to re-examine its own involvements in Africa. "What was once appropriated through violence and coercion cannot be morally seen as something that was lawfully acquired," said Carsten Brosda, Hamburg's Senator for Culture and the chairman of the conference of ministers of culture.

This wake-up call is the result of a larger movement coming mainly from African countries, which question the legitimacy of European countries to own tribal artefacts and raise the question of restitution of these artefacts acquired during colonial times. For the past months, Benin and Senegal have been the most active regarding the restitution of cultural artefacts but they are far from being the only ones. They are asking former colonial powers such as France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom to acknowledge the need to take actions and to ease the return of cultural heritage to their countries. This process is also supported by the international community as the United Nations General Assembly already adopted a resolution for the “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin”.

Africa is one of the world regions that underwent the biggest expatriation of cultural heritage. Even if it’s hard to confirm, according to experts’ numbers, 85 to 90% of African cultural heritage is still held outside of the continent, mainly in European museums. Indeed, some 90 000 African artefacts are still kept in French collections and two thirds have been acquired during the colonial era, between 1885 and 1960. To answer the growing claims, the French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report in 2018 focusing on the question of restitution as he repeated his commitment to the repatriation of artefacts to their home countries. Written by two academics, Bénédicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal, the report actually recommends that French museums permanently return African artworks considered as “objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions”.

As a consequence the president Macron wants to meet with ‘‘All his African and European partners in 2019 to try and define a real political solution to restitute arts.’’ Yet, actions have already been taken and Ivory Coast will be one of the first to benefit from it as the country should receive 148 artifacts including a famous drum from the Atchans ethny which should be handed to the Museum of Civilisation of Ivory Coast.

Such decision as the one taken by France and Germany, among others, is not without its opponents. Some people, such as the former French culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, have offered a quite dramatic response saying that returning the artefacts would "empty the museums". Such idea comes from the presupposition that the countries making demands want everything back and that does not seem to be the case. Much more probable is that they want some objects with high symbolic value — and these are not in the thousands, but number probably less than a hundred. Besides, a distinction is made between art illegally acquired through despoliation (war looting, illegal purchasing) and the rest - in the last case, there is no discussion about giving back lawfully acquired pieces.

In a continent where 60 percent of the population is under 20, young people have a right to their artistic and cultural heritage and should be able access to their own culture without having to take a plane to Europe. However in Europe many argue than Africa cannot properly house its heritage as it doesn’t have the infrastructure to held them; a conjecture discredit by museum-building boom in sub-Saharan Africa, some of which is to house contemporary African art, but much of which is being built with a focus on historical and cultural collections, most of which are currently held overseas. One of the first beneficiaries of this movement is Benin, which has announced it would open three museums and renovate six others as Emmanuel Macron answered their demands by giving back 26 pieces. "If Benin succeeds in showing its heritage I think everything will change," says Marie-Cecile Zinsou, a French-Beninese who is among Africa's most vocal restitution advocates. "Then you'll have a real example of how African countries are getting their heritage back and showing it to the public. Then people will believe."

Felwine Sarr, the co-writer of the French report said ‘‘interestingly enough, now that the debate about the restitution of cultural assets is underway, one hears arguments that reveal a deeply rooted condescension: saying that in Africa there are no museums or that the countries there are incapable of administering their own works of art. That one cannot be sure that the objects of cultural heritage are safe. Not everyone says that, but large sections of the population are convinced that the objects would be much safer in Europe — and that it might even be to the benefit of Africa if they were kept there. This means that there is a lot of work ahead of us to "decolonize" the gaze.” By saying so, Sarr points out at the core of the issue regarding the restitution of artefacts from former colonial power to the countries of origin. Like the restitution of art looted during the Nazi era, such a process is important to soothe the memories and redressing the wrongs of the past. Indeed, it’s not only about answering claims but mainly about addressing the huge imbalance resulting from the colonial era and which need to evolve if new and fair relationships want to be built.

A few weeks ago, the Italian government handed over 796 Chinese relics that had been “illegally exported” to Italy from China – including a Majiayao red clay pot and Song dynasty porcelain. Beijing has long sought the repatriation of stolen or smuggled Chinese cultural artefacts held abroad, launching high-profile campaigns in recent years to do so. “We are proud to be able to return these pieces to our friends, as they are representative of the heritage and identity of the Chinese people,” said Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian Minister of Culture. Of course, this is a highly political move as the President Xi Jinping visits to discuss the deepening of partnership between Italy and China and the implementation of the “Belt and Road Initiative”


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