BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 13 DEC 18

Will Macron Lead the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage?

Debates around restitution are breaking with increasing force against the doors of Europe’s treasure chambers; a new report may prove decisive

BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 13 DEC 18

In November 2017, Emmanuel Macron, France’s embattled president, mooted plans for the ‘temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa’ during an address in Burkina Faso. A new report published last month lays out the intellectual foundations for this ideal, as well as suggesting the rudiments of a working schedule. Among its findings, the report, authored by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, motivates for the immediate restitution of some two dozen symbolic artefacts from Benin, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal whose return has long been requested by African states.

The artefacts include statues and regalia plundered during the 1892 sacking of the royal palace in Abomey, in southern Benin, as well as relief plaques and commemorative heads taken by British soldiers during the 1897 ransacking of Benin City in Nigeria. Commissioned by Macron, this candid report strikes a measured, sometimes even literary tone in its handling of an emotive subject. Titled ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics’, the report principally addresses France’s wrongdoings and extensive holdings of some 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Its resolutions are non-binding.

Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy at the College de France in Paris, 2018. Courtesy: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Informed by two consultation sessions held in Dakar and Paris, the report’s arguments unfold in three broad movements. The first details the philosophical and juridical arguments related to cultural plunder and restitution; the second is evidentiary in nature; and the third presents a detailed framework for restitution. Aside from the mentioned immediate returns, the report motivates for the need for inventorying and transcontinental dialogue, which, it says, is a precursor to a further open-ended process of ‘return, re-installation, and/or circulation of recovered pieces’.

The report is unambiguous about the history and effects of cultural plunder. ‘The confiscation, or the transfer of art objects, objects of worship, or those merely used on a daily basis have accompanied the projects of empire since antiquity,’ state the authors. The consequences of plunder have always been deeply felt. Ancient Greeks, it reminds, were as aggrieved by Roman pillaging and the fatuous display of their material culture as sub-Saharan Africans are today – more than 90% of their material cultural legacy is housed outside of the African continent.

The trauma of plunder may be time-specific but its consequences ripple across the ages. ‘It becomes inscribed throughout the long duration of societies, conditioning the flourishing of certain societies while simultaneously continuing to weaken others.’ This point is simple enough to understand, but an example is illustrative.

Thierry Oussou, Impossible Is Nothing, 2016–18, video still. Courtesy: the artist; produced with the support of Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

In 2014, Thierry Oussou, a self-taught Beninese artist, produced a replica of a wooden throne belonging to Béhanzin, a Dahomey king. For his project Impossible is Nothing (2016–18), shown at this year’s 10th Berlin Biennale, he engaged a group of archaeology students from the University of Abomey-Calavi to excavate his buried throne. Oussou had no idea of the restitution debate when he conceived the project; rather, he was intrigued by the enthusiastic public response to a 2006 exhibition of two of the original royal thrones – one loaned from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris – at the Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou, Benin.

The decolonization of the museum is an idea that, for all its necessity, operates in a Western marketplace where plunder has been legally and culturally normalized. In December 2017 a throne attributed to Béhanzin, or one of his brothers, sold for USD$43,750 at Bonhams in Los Angeles. The throne arrived in the United States from France, where it was acquired from the family of Lieutenant Crayssac, an inspector of the colonies in the British Army during the sacking of Abomey.

This notorious event in African colonial history, which marked the end of a multi-secular kingdom, is explicitly referenced in the report. European museums, it states, have become the ‘public archives’ of the colonial system. The claim is supported by an inventory: 69,000 sub-Saharan objects in the British Museum, 37,000 in the World Museum of Vienna, and 75,000 in the controversial Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a cabinet of curiosities writ large that opens in 2019.

Mbangu mask, Central Pende, Bandundu, D.R. Congo, wood, pigments and fibres. Courtesy: © RMCA, Tervuren, photo R. Asselberghs

In September I attended an art history conference hosted by Dakar-based curator Koyo Kouoh’s RAW Material Company in that city’s newly opened, Chinese-built Museum of Black Civilisations. Participants suggested that Macron’s 2017 statement was mere bluster. In the event, the Sarr-Savoy report has upped the stakes. Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, has called for the return of all Senegalese artworks held in France. Ivory Coast has submitted a claim for ‘about a hundred masterpieces,’ reported The New York Times.

Experts have cautioned against the ‘politicization of restitution’, although the genie has long been out of the bottle. Franco-Beninese collector Lionel Zinsou acquired one of Béhanzin’s thrones in 2004 and subsequently used it as leverage (he promised to repatriate it from France) during his successful bid for political office in 2015. Such delicacies are, however, dwarfed by the endurance of European obstinacy. The newly revamped Royal Museum for Central Africa outside Brussels, which displays King Leopold II’s plunder from Congo, has an estimated 180,000 ethnographic items.

‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures’, curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

‘Belgium still bears a great pain and burden of its colonial past and cannot look directly at the millions of deaths the country caused through its exploitation of the Congo between 1885 and 1908,’ states the report. Belgium is by no means exceptional. Vienna’s grand Kunsthistoriches Museum is currently hosting an artist-curated exhibition organized by filmmaker Wes Anderson and his partner, illustrator and writer Juman Malouf, drawing from the museum’s four million objects representing 14 historical collections.

Nominally cute and affecting, ‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures’ is also strikingly tone deaf. A throwback to the room-scale curiosity cabinet of Rudolf II, a crackpot Habsburg emperor entranced by collectable oddities, Anderson’s trademark whimsy and humour in his quixotically organized displays works overtime to exclude all politics and much history. This may well explain the exhibition’s popular draw, but debates around restitution are washing up with increasing force against the doors of Europe’s treasures chambers.

Main image: Detail of the mounted elephant in the gallery ‘Landscapes and Biodiversity’, Africa Museum, Brussels. Courtesy: © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

Sean O’Toole is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. He edits Art South Africa.