African artifacts are scattered in museums across Europe and North America in places most Africans will probably never gain entry into. The Guardian explained it best when it extrapolated that “The value of art goes beyond simple economic value. Art can be educational, life-enhancing and help to define our personal and national identities.” Countries that hold collections of African treasures have argued that they should retain them because the continent is plagued with war and poverty and lacks the institutions and resources to protect these precious works. Thankfully this sentiment is not universal and some leaders, like French president Emmanuel Macron, support the repatriation of African art to their native countries.
In 2016, Benin made a formal request for artifacts taken during France’s invasion and subsequent colonial occupation to be returned. Many of the objects, which include royal thrones and scepters, doors removed from the Royal Palaces of Abomey (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and statues are currently in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. However, the French government, then under President François Hollande, declined Benin’s request for repatriation, claiming that they are the protected property of the French state.
Enter President Macron, who appears to be prepared to revise French legislation and allow for the temporary and permanent repatriation of African artifacts currently held in French collections. In 2017, during a three-day trip to Africa, Macron said the return of African artifacts will become “a top priority” for France during the next five years. “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” he told a group of students during a two-hour speech at the University of Ouagadougou, in the capital of Burkina Faso. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”
“African heritage,” President Macron said, “must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.” “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
There have been other government efforts to return African art to Africa, for example, from Italy to Ethiopia. Private efforts have also been made by rich African individuals to buy back African art. In addition, there are calls for donors to channel aid to build and strengthen cultural institutions in Africa.
In a joint appearance with the president of Benin, Patrice Talon, President Macron made good on his promise by announcing his appointment of two experts to spearhead the repatriation of African artifacts held in French museums. The chosen two are Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, and they will present their recommendations in November. The director of the Musée du Quai Branly, Stéphane Martin, will also travel to Benin to meet with cultural workers in the coming weeks.
In an editorial first, published in the French newspaper Le Monde in January, Savoy wrote that Macron’s speech in Ouagadougou constituted a “revolution”. She wrote, “It draws strength from a generational shift, it suggests that sharing is possible, it presupposes the specificity of the African case and — contrary to expectations — it has not sparked the institutional outcry that we have been used to in recent years.”
“The story of African collections is a shared European history, a family affair, if you will, where aesthetic curiosity, scientific interests, military expeditions, networks of commerce, and ‘opportunities’ of all sorts contributed to feed logics of domination, affirmation and national rivalries,” she wrote, after enumerating the African holdings of major museums in other European countries. “The museums of our capitals are the brilliant conservators of human creativity. They are also, despite themselves, repositories of a darker history that’s too rarely told.”
Savoy added that Stéphane Martin, the director of the ethnographic Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris, which holds some 70 000 artworks from sub-Saharan Africa, was an unexpected voice of support, saying, “Nowadays we cannot have an entire continent deprived of its history and artistic genius.”
The African continent is experiencing an interesting shift in loyalties. Countries historically leaned towards their colonial masters but emerging powers are tipping the scale. As America’s reach and pull diminishes under the clumsy foreign policy of President Trump’s administration, Chinas sun is steadily rising. Although China is not the best long-run partner as it tends strategically to get countries to heavily leverage their resources and economic future, it is providing ready capital and resources that the continent needs to progress.
This reality is possibly the driving force behind the French gesture of goodwill. Andrew Reid, a senior lecturer in African archaeology at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, said in a telephone interview to the New York Times that the return of artifacts could be a form of soft diplomacy and an attempt to “generate political goodwill” in a region where China’s influence is rising.