France’s President Has Promised to Return Africa’s Heritage—Now Macron’s Pledge Is Being Put to the Test
European museums face renewed calls to hand back artifacts looted in Africa during the colonial-era.
Naomi Rea, March 8, 2018, artnet.com
France's president Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Benin's president Patrice Talon during his arrival to the Elysee Palace on March 5, 2018 in Paris. Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.
Emmanuel Macron welcomed the President of Benin to the Elysée Palace in Paris this week, the first visit by an African head of state since the French President’s surprise pledge last November that he wanted to see Africa’s cultural treasures on show “in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” not just in Paris.
In Macron’s speech delivered in Burkina Faso last November, he went beyond art and artifacts in France’s public collections, declaring: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”
The outcome of the French head of state’s meeting with Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, is being watched closely by European museums that also have art and artifacts looted from the West African nation in their collection—and those who have long wanted museums to repatriate historic plunder taken from across the continent.
Also this week, Macron announced the appointment of two experts who will report later in the year on the repatriation of African cultural heritage held in French museums. The Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, are due to present their recommendations in November.
Benin’s Lost Bronzes
Macron’s historic statement, which came as a surprise to many in Europe and Africa, marked a huge shift in the stance held by the French government, which for many years closely guarded the “inalienable” right to its national collections. Its institutions own African art, some of which was looted by the French during the colonial period, just as Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in territories they controlled in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Benin suffered more than most, with French troops looting the Dahomey Kingdom in 1892. British troops also plundered Benin City—which is actually located in today’s Nigeria—in 1897. Many of the looted artifacts, including the sculptures known at the Benin Bronzes, were acquired by the British Museum. Others were auctioned off to defray the the cost of the campaign and are now in museums across Europe as well as North America.
Although Macron’s speech was widely applauded, others were less impressed. The president declared he will “set the conditions” for repatriation, but what are those conditions? And does Macron have the right to decide whether African institutions are fit to take care of artifacts, if they are repatriated?
In December, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments called for France to unconditionally return all heritage taken illegally from Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells artnet News: “[It is] completely and arrogantly wrong to imagine that France should have the last word on what constitutes safe conditions for managing these artifacts.”
Ogbechie thinks that in addition to restituting African objects, Western countries should provide monetary reparations equalling the benefits derived from holding these objects for more than a hundred years.
A visitor looks at a statue in brass representing a horn player (L, Benin, South of Nigeria, XVIth and XVIIth Century) during an exhibition focused on refined Art in Benin, 02 October 2007 at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. Photo by Olivier Laban–Mattei/AFP/Getty Images.
Will French Museums Follow Macron’s Lead?
The French Ministry of Culture has opposed repatriation in the past. So far, the culture minister Françoise Nyssen has not commented in public on Macron’s speech, nor has the director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez. In October he proudly announced at the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi a new acquisition: a magnificent head of the Oba (king) of Benin. (The Louvre Abu Dhabi did not respond to requests for information about its provenance).
The director of the Museé du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, which has a vast collection of African artifacts was opposed to returning anything to source countries, but after Macron’s speech in Africa, Stéphane Martin has had a change of heart.
When artnet News contacted the museum shortly after Macron’s speech on November 28, a spokesperson stated that the museum “fully supported the president’s initiative.” Martin has since come out in favor of returning African artifacts to Africa, justifying his U-turn position in an interview with The Art Newspaper: “There is a real problem which is specific to Africa. Cultural heritage has disappeared from the continent.” He regretted that in the museum’s African art exhibitions since the museum opened in 2006, not a single work was lent by an African museum. “We ought to do something to repair that,” Martin said.
Previously Martin argued that losing artfacts would disrupt the museum’s mission to educate French visitors about the “Other.” He told Sally Price in her 2007 book Paris Primitive, “We are not in the business of buying ourselves a clear conscience vis-a vis the non-Western world or becoming an ‘apology museum’.”
The Loan Option
Instead of repatriation, Martin prefers that French and African museums collaborate and exchange loans. He has suggested that a collaborative project similar to the Louvre Abu Dhabi might work with a museum in Africa, if suitable museum partnerships could be arranged for medium or long-term loans. But here’s the rub: although Martin cites the Museum of African Civilisations in the Senegalese capital of Dakar as a possible partner, there are few other museums in Africa that would meet French museum standards.
Critics of this approach argue that French approval of African museums expresses a paternalistic attitude towards Africa that smacks of “neo-colonialism.” In the publication Modern Ghana Kwame Tua Opuku, condemned Westerners assuming “a God-given right and obligation to supervise Africans and their activities, including what obviously is African property.”
“The Benin bronzes were perfectly safeguarded in the King’s palace for over 500 years before the British looted the entire corpus they could lay their hands on,” Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie points out, although he acknowledges that African museums will need time to improve security and other standards of care.
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