By Alkali Amana

In June 2020, Congolese activist, Mwazulu Diyabanza and four other activists of African descent, three men and one woman, filmed themselves removing a 19th-century African funeral pole. Which is believed to come from modern Chad, from its display stand at the Quai Branly, a museum in Paris that is home to arts and artefacts from indigenous cultures around the world. Diyabanza described the action at the museum as a way to “place the best interests of our people above all prohibitions and limitations, but also overall protocol, and security requirements as well as intimidation”. He was fined by a court in Paris for his actions, but his agitation persists until now.

Diyabanza’s ideas and notions are those that resonate with the current mindset of Africans as the call for the return of artefacts of African origin intensifies. These artefacts belonging to African history and times carted away when the continent was largely colonized by Europeans, and today, most of them sit in museums all over Europe. Presently, restitution and repatriation of sub-Saharan African art and cultural heritage in museums and private collections is an area of increasing global focus and debate.

Considering how African treasures were carted away in the Past, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a 2018 report – A Guide to Africa’s Looted Treasures written by Ashley Lime, earmarked and listed some key artefacts and arts of African cultural heritage which were taken away from the continent. Some of these artefacts include:

  • The Benin Bronzes – actually made of ivory, brass, wood and ceramic; they were carted away in 1897 during the British’s Punitive expedition on Benin.
  • The Man-eaters of Tsavo – These artefacts were meant to depict two infamous lions from the Tsavo region in Kenya, East Africa, which killed and ate railway workers at the end of the 19th John Patterson, the man who killed them, sold their stuffed bodies in 1925 to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They are catalogued in the museum’s permanent collections.
  • The Rosetta Stone – originally from Egypt, it is a stele made out of granodiorite – a coarse-grained rock. It serves the importance of being used by researchers to learn how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. The British took possession of the stone under the terms of the treaty of Alexandria in 1801, from whence it was transferred to the British Museum.
  • The Maqdala Treasures – they were taken away from Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia) by the British army in 1868. They include precious items like an 18th-century gold crown and a royal wedding dress. According to Historians, 15 elephants and 200 mules were needed to cart away all the loot from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros II’s northern citadel capital.

The artefacts mentioned above represent only a fraction of what African lost and needs to regain; hence, the current mindset representing a shift in the demands and awareness on the issue.

Plenty of African art is domiciled outside the continent, including statues and thrones, numbered in thousands and housed in European countries such as Belgium, the UK, Austria and Germany. In a study/report on the ‘Restitution of African Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics’ by Senegalese Writer and Economist Felwine Sarr and French historian, Benedicte Savoy estimated that the British Museum alone has a collection of around 69,000 works from Africa while calling for thousands of African artworks in French museums taken during the colonial period to be returned to the continent. The report, commissioned in 2018 by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, called for a change in French law to allow the restitution of cultural works to Africa. It was a significant step in the clamour for the return of African works, as lending his voice in a meeting with students in Burkina Faso in 2017, Macron said “Africa’s heritage must be showcased in Paris – but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities. Starting today, and over the next five years, I want to move toward allowing for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa”. The study by Sarr and Savoy also recommended the return of a wide range of objects taken during the colonial period by force – or where there is simply no documentation of consent.

According to the most commonly cited UNESCO figures from a 2007 forum, 90% to 95% of sub-Saharan cultural artefacts are housed outside Africa. Many like the works from Benin, were taken during the colonial period and ended up in museums across Europe and North America. The punitive expedition against Benin, otherwise popularly referred to as the Benin Massacre of 1897, alone saw over 4,000 works of art carted away, and the British Museum in London has about 700 Nigerian historical artefacts with around 100 of them displayed in an underground gallery.

Sarr estimates there are at least 90,000 African items in France. The vast majority are in just one, the state-owned Quai Branly in Paris, where the Director – Stephanie Martin supports the notion of restitution, noting in his interview with radio station Europe 1 that “museums should not be the hostages of the unhappy history of colonialism”. The British Museum in London has 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan in its collection, many obtained in colonial times, according to The New York Times in a feature on the return of African artefacts.  

In an encouraging vein, efforts towards ensuring the restitution and repatriation of African artworks are yielding results as the global clamour intensifies, and so far:

  • The British Museum has announced plans to lend some of the artworks with it to a proposed new museum in Benin city billed to open in 2021. This temporary return, however, is not seen as sufficient. The French report mentioned earlier, stated that unless it could be proven that objects were obtained legitimately, they should be returned to Africa permanently, not on a long term loan. According to Sarr “the problem is you cannot lend people and object that fundamentally belongs to them”.
  • Since the publication of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report, hopeful signs of progress abound, and France is currently reviewing legislation to officially return 26 looted artefacts to Benin and the sword of El Hadj Tall to Senegal. Other efforts in various European countries remain in nascent stages. For instance, officials in Germany and the Netherlands have announced plans to return art and artefacts taken from Africa during the colonial period.
  • On issues of restitution policies, the African Union has led the way by referencing restitution in Agenda 2063, and ECOWAS has established a five-year Action Plan to move this forward.

African countries that have sought restitution of artworks and artefacts include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. Often, in response to restitution claims, Western collectors have expressed concern that African museums lie semi-derelict and lack the security to stop the pilfering of their few remaining objects. Impressively, African countries have replied by constructing new facilities and promoting them as potential homes for repatriated art and artefacts. In Senegal, the Museum of Black Civilisations, completed in December 2018, was found to address the “cultural devaluation” of Black achievements. A private museum funded by Yemisi shyllon, one of Africa’s biggest art collectors, recently opened in Lagos, Nigeria. This museum houses more than 1,000 artworks donated by Shyllon, including treasures dating to the 16th century Benin kingdom. In Togo, the Palais de Lome, a former seat of German and French colonial power, has been transformed into a space for cultural heritage. Others include Congo’s National Museum and the planned Benin Royal Museum in Nigeria.

It is time for Africa’s culture to be represented in its soil and according to Shyllon, African artefacts “represent our civilization. They represent what our forefathers were able to contribute” – through their activities, culture and perspective. Therefore, with their origins and emergence deeply rooted in African creation, it is inappropriate to push for terms of loaning these artefacts to their roots, which is what most European museums currently in possession of African artefacts are considering. These museums hope to retain the legal ownership of all artefacts. These loan suggestions have been met with stern criticisms from African quarters. Shyllon is of the view that it is odd when somebody possesses something that does not belong to him or her but remains insistent on lending it to the owner of the work. Insisting on full restitution is the African option. The Sarr-Savoy report explicitly stated and recommended that full restitution of these artwork is the only acceptable option, except where proof of the legitimacy of transfer has been ascertained. In a New York Times interview with Jason Farago, Cecile Fromont noted that the Sarr-Savoy report was impactful and that it demanded the logic of France’s relationship to Africa be renegotiated. For her, by insisting on full restitution, the idea of ‘long term loans’ to African countries becomes as absurd as it sounds.

The case for the return of these artefacts is further strengthened when certain economic implications are considered. American museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S economy every year, and it supports more than 726,000 jobs. Europe’s cultural and creative industries generate around 509 billion euros each year, accounting for 5.3 percent of the EU’s GDP and 7.5 percent of the EU’s employment. Echoing the words of Tandazani Dhlakama, assistant curator at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, African nations can benefit economically is this same way (if not better) – at least, as it pertains African artefacts. Beyond the economic gains, restitution enables legitimate owners to re-institute and re-integrate objects into their lives, communities and culture, thereby maintaining and preserving history. Dhlakama notes that bringing back artefacts and attracting those from around the diaspora to see them on the continent will help people “come to terms with their own collective memory, celebrate their rich histories and identities, and be able to pass this on to future generations”. Then, restitution is important because having reference to the Past help us understand the present and the future better, which is vital for Africa’s growth and development as its heritage cannot be neglected in its history. Africa’s march towards recouping its heritage is a bold step in stamping its identity, and the clamour for restitution, without doubt, needs the voice of more Africans to bring to the awareness of other Africans and the world at large the need for the continent to be filled once again with the glamour of its representations in the form of its artworks and artefacts.