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Africa poised to recover its cultural heritage

With the return of its cultural artifacts that had either been donated or looted during colonization, Africa is set out to rediscover its cultural heritage.By Ngagne Diouf

Since the publication in 2018 of the report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, written by the Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, a part of the veil has been lifted on the treasure trove of art works still kept in European museums.

According to the over 200-page document, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, African cultural heritage represents some 90,000 works from sub-Saharan Africa, 70,000 of which are in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and 20,000 in other French cities.

This commitment made on November 28, 2017 by President Macron during a visit to Burkina Faso, responds favorably to requests for the restitution of African cultural heritage.

“I want within five years, to ensure that the conditions are met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa,” said Emmanuel Macron, in the presence of Roch Marc Christian Kabore, his counterpart of Burkina Faso.

According to the report, nearly 400,000 works of African art are displayed in European museums. 

Among these are the British Museum (69,000), the Weltmuseum in Vienna (37,000), and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium (180,000), the future Humboldt Forum in Berlin (75,000), the Vatican Museums and the Quai Branly (7,000).

Benin on the front line

African countries, led by Ethiopia and Nigeria, have been calling for the return of objects missing during the colonial period for almost half a century. 

This request was revived by Benin, which is the first African nation to have officially asked France for a restitution of its heritage. 

Thousands of works were looted, sold or stolen from the kingdom of Behanzin at the end of the 19th century during the conquest of former Dahomey (now Benin). 

These were symbolic works of art that France considered to be “spoils of war” from King Behanzin’s Palace by General Alfred Dodds.

“African cultural heritage is a development factor, a means of fighting poverty. These works have a soul; they are just waiting to return to their natural environment for their rebirth,” Benin’s Patrice Talon said, adding that “these items establish the historical relations between the peoples of Dahomey and those of the kingdoms of the Gulf of Guinea.”

During Patrice Talon’s visit to France on March 21, 2018, Emmanuel Macron had expressed his resolve to restore “without delay, 26 works” claimed by Benin, an operation which should be carried out as part of museum cooperation between Paris and Cotonou.

El Hadi Omar Tall’s sabre, a Guarantee or a Challenge?

On November 17, 2019 in Dakar, France officially returned to Senegal the sabre of the Senegalese Muslim conqueror, El Hadj Omar Foutiyou Tall. 

President Macky Sall of Senegal had received the sabre from French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, in the presence of descendants of the Tall family.

The agreement for the handover of the said sabre was then signed between the French Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly and the Senegalese Minister for Culture and Communication, Abdoulaye Diop in the Banquet Hall of the presidential place.

“It is fortunate that El Hadj Omar Tall’s saber, kept at the Musee de l’Armee française under inventory number 6995 marks this new sequence of Franco-Senegalese relations with its brilliance,” said President Sall.

Pending the return of other works of art to Senegal, the sabre seems to embody a process that will have to succeed; but when?

The African cultural tax

If restoring means “returning something to its rightful owner,” the request by African countries or the initiative of President Macron speaks to the guilt of “looters.” 

However, in the case of a compensation for this “damage” suffered, the option of levying an African cultural tax seems relevant. 

This tax can therefore be considered a monetary injunction imposed on Western museums in favor of the promotion and development of Africa’s heritage. 

Thus, the money collected from entries into the sites, receptacles of African works of art, would be added to a “bonus” on any historical artifacts sold.

Would the attention given to these masks and statues in Europe be the same in African museums? 

The conservation system could fail in several cases. 

Visits would be less frequent on the continent and sales would have very little effect on auctions.

However, the restitution process seems to have started and the usual formalities will have to follow suit in the intervening months.

France’s legal obstacle

Under the UNESCO Convention of November 17, 1970 on the measures to be taken to prohibit and prevent the import, export and transfer of illicit property in cultural property, France remains limited in terms of returning goods.

Thus the French president announced a legal framework which would allow France to return such items. 

This process also concerns other European countries which will as well, have to make the operational arrangements for restitution.

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