Repatriating African Art: 90 Percent Of It Is Outside The Continent, Some Was Stolen

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Written by Ann Brown

From historic statues to thrones to manuscripts, up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent according to some estimates, and some of that art was stolen.

French President Emmanuel Macron seems to be trying to keep a promise to “reset” French-African relations. He has commissioned a study to look into African art stolen during colonization of the continent.

What the study found was astonishing. African art is all over Europe.

“Thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies,” the Associated Press reported. The Quai Branly possess several works from the Dahomey kingdom (now Benin) including the metal-and-wood throne of 19th-century King Ghezo, the doors to the palace of King Gele, and towering wooden statues. There is art from Senegal to Ethiopia.


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The report recommends that France return to Africa the art and artifacts held in French cultural institutions. “It characterizes the collections as part of ‘a system of appropriation and alienation’ that takes away from Africans their ‘spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity,'” the Council on Foreign Relations reported.

Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy authored the report.

Macron said in 2017 he would like to return these treasure over the next five years, but French law prohibits the French government from returning or “alienating” items in public art collections.

African art
A visitors look at wooden royal statues of the Dahomey kingdom, dated 19th century, today’s Benin,at Quai Branly museum in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums are eagerly awaiting a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron on how former colonizers can return African art to Africa. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Officials in Africa, of course, had some comments. Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, told the Associated Press: “It’s entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks…These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today.”

Professor Verkijika Fanso, a historian at the University of Yaounde One in Cameroon, said, “France is feeling the heat of what others will face. Let their decision to bring back what is ours motivate others.”

African art
A visitor looks at the wooden and metal throne of the King Ghezo of the Dahomey kingdom, dated 19th century, today’s Benin at Quai Branly museum in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums are eagerly awaiting a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron on how former colonizers can return African art to Africa. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

If the French do return the art, it could put pressure on other European countries that colonized Africa, such as Great Britain, which also has looted artifacts and manuscripts.

Still, the advice in the report is not binding. “At present, Macron has committed to returning 26 artifacts to Benin,” the Council Foreign Relations reported.

If the artwork does get returned in mass, many African museums do not have the resources to protect and care for valuables.