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Colonial-Era Art in European Museums Finally Might Be Given Back To Africa

by Shelby Hawkins on May 30, 2018

Three tall half-man, half-beast African statues reside in a gallery in Paris’ Quai Branly Museum. Like so many other African artifacts, these statues were stolen by French troops in 1892 from The Kingdom of Dahomey – modern-day Benin.

Museums across Europe are filled with hundreds of thousands of colonial-era items.

One of the latest additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther, addresses the issue in one of its early scenes. While antagonist Erik Killmonger is viewing African art at the Museum of Great Britain, the museum director approaches him. She offers her expert knowledge, telling him that a seventh-century war hammer is from Benin.

Killmonger swiftly disputed her. He claims that the artifact is actually from Wakanda (the fictionalized country) and it is made of vibranium. He then offers to take it off her hands.

The director scoffs and lets him know that the art is not for sale. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” Killmonger counters, “Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it… like they took everything else?”

During a November trip to Burkina Faso, French president Emmanuel Macron said that “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”

The representative Council of France’s Black Association would like France to return about 5,000 objects to Africa. However, there are laws that currently prevent restitution. France, and other European nations, are the owners of precious African art.

It makes some wonder, are the things that we made for ourselves not belonging to us? Why is our history and our culture not our intellectual property?

President Macron desires a change in the laws that prohibit restitution. On the same trip to former colony Burkina Faso he says, “I want the conditions to be created within five years for the temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage to Africa.”

Macron appointed French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to examine how artefacts may be sent back to Africa.

The daughter of the former prime minister of Benin, Marie Cécile Zinsou is campaigning for restitution. She believes the artefacts are the “treasure of our ancestors.” Zinsou is also aware that not all Africans share her view.

“My best friend, the artist Romuald Hazumé, a Beninois, is against it. He thinks we won’t be able to look after the artefacts. But I believe we will,” Zinsou says, “This is a way for us to recover part of our history. It’s essential for young Africans to have access to their heritage.

Other opposers of the artefacts’ return share Hazumé’s opinion. Conservationists believe sending artefacts to unstable countries could result in damage or theft.

Historian Paul Blanchard does not want nations experiencing extreme poverty, such as Chad, to obtain the art. “They do not currently have museums and cultural heritage services capable of restoring and displaying these objects.”

Blanchard, however, does think nations like Nigeria are capable of handling the art because they are home to well established museums. They have “all the ingredients for solid restitution claims.”

British Museum

Last week The German Association published an outline entitled “Guide to Dealing With Collection Goods From Colonial Contexts.” In an effort to progress from wrongs committed during colonization, Berlin agreed to return nine artefacts to indigenous Alaskan communities.

“The guidelines are an attempt to preserve vested colonial interests that is doomed to failure,” Tahir Della of the initiative for black people in Germany (ISD) told the Guardian. “Every day, members of the communities of African origin in Africa and here in the diaspora have a better picture of which of their looted treasures lie in the cellars of European museums, and they won’t rest until they have got back what belongs to them.”

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Shelby Hawkins
My name is Shelby, like the mustang, and I am an avid lover of photography, literature and desserts. I identify as a proud feminist and Pan-Africanist; hopefully that manifests in my writing.