Sophie Hunter examines how French President Macron’s determination to return artwork to African countries could set a tricky precedent for their European neighbours.
During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, French President Macron declared that the return of African art to the continent was one of his priorities because “African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums, it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou”. On November 23 2018, Emmanuel Macron received the report of the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French historian Bénédicte Savoy. The report called for the return of African artworks, currently in French museums, that was taken without consent during the colonial period, if African countries request them and if artworks were not obtained legitimately. According to their findings, authors suggest that about 90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently outside the continent. For instance, 51 per cent of the African artworks at the Musée du quai Branly, which focuses on non-European art, may have to be returned.
While Macron attempts to turn the page on the troubled relationship between France and Africa and its colonial history, the report has started a legal debate over restitution. Savoy and Sarr recommend changing French heritage law in order to allow for the return of artworks to Africa, because under French law African artifacts are considered state property, even if taken illicitly. “Once these objects are part of our public collections, they cannot be returned to a so-called ‘owner’, since these owners don’t exist for these museums because these countries did not exist at the time,” historian Pascal Blanchard told AFP. Macron seems certain to go ahead with the legal process as he announced that 26 works claimed by Benin would be returned “without delay”.
Critics have pointed that France’s example could set a tricky precedent for other countries. The restitution of 26 objects to Benin “does not change the policy of the British Museum, nor legislation in Great Britain,” said the director, Hartwig Fischer. On November 20, the governor of Easter Island begged the British Museum for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s stone monoliths, which was acquired 150 years ago. The British Museum which holds 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its collections has been in a decade long battles over the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. On December 5 2018, the Italian Supreme Court ruled against the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and requested that it hands over an ancient Greek statue first discovered by an Italian fisherman. According to David Rykner, managing director of La Tribune de l’Art, African artworks belong to the French museums because, during the colonial period between 1885 and 1960, looting was legally, not morally, allowed, so “we must give back everything or nothing”. The expert points to Macron’s lack of legal knowledge on this topic. The French precedent could lead to endless claims and set countries against each other in their quest for legitimacy and national identity.
While Macron’s announcement to return 26 objects to Africa makes African art more visible, returning art may not be the best solution. The director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a giant museum of non-Western art set to open next year, has underlined: “How far back will you go? Until Roman times? Because many items in Rome were robbed somewhere in Greece or in ancient Egypt.” Others point to the lack of infrastructure and security on the African continent. A year ago, the national collections in the Musee d’Abomey Benin were partly destroyed in a fire. A change in government could also be a threat to private collections in Africa. The report does not recommend long term loans. However, Macron has advocated for “temporary restitution” to foster collaboration between European and African countries. “It’s not a problem if the works are brought here and then sent back [to France]. The important things is that we have access to them,” said Silvie Memel Kassi, the director of the Museum of Civilisations in Ivory Coast. “It’s not a bad thing in and of itself that the objects are in France. They were inventoried and conserved. The important thing is that we work together.”
A new generation of African leaders want to push for the return of African art to the continent. “Today it feels as if we’re just a step away from recovering our history and being finally able to share it on the continent,” said Marie-Cécile Zinsou. The daughter of Benin’s former prime minister set up the Zinsou Art Foundation in Cotonou to enable citizens to view the treasure of their history, not in a fancy European museum but, in a national museum. Her motivation stems from a desire for the artistic reappropriation of the public history and national pride of Benin by its own people. The question of restitution needs to be addressed in an extremely sensitive manner because it touches on subjects such as colonialism and national identity. As Savoy stresses, the current debate is not about “emptying Western museums to fill up the African ones, but to invent a new relationship based on ethics and equity.” And art could well be the driver to shape the future relationship between Europe and Africa.
Sophie Hunter is a law graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, with a previous background in International politics and Russian from the University of Exeter. She plans to specialise in international Antarctic and Arctic issues and polar law at master’s level.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.