President Emmanuel Macron announced Friday that France would return 26 works of art to Benin, hours after he was presented with a report calling for thousands of African artworks in French museums and taken during the colonial period to be returned.
The report,by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, recommends that French museums give back work if African countries request them.
The report estimates that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts. Some70,000 of the estimated 90,000 works of sub-Saharan art in France’s public collections are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art, much of it from former French colonies.
It will be up to Macron to determine the feasibility of the report’s recommendations. France has strict laws that consider African artifacts state property even if they were taken illicitly. Removing any works from the state collections will require an amendment to currentcultural heritage laws.
Museums throughout Europe are watching closelyfor what happens next. The report notes that hundreds of thousands of other objects are housed in Belgium, the UK, Austria and Germany. The national museums of Africa, on the other hand, rarely have collections exceeding 3,000 works, said the report, and those objects often have less artistic value. Any restitution programme in France could increase pressure on other nations to return objects from their own collections.
“The Macron report is generating a thought-provoking debate,” a spokesperson for London's British Museum told FRANCE 24.
The report estimates that the British Museum has a collection of 69,000 works from Africa. The museum declined to comment further before hearing Macron’s reaction to the report. “In the meantime, the British Museum will continue to work with our colleagues across Africa,” said the spokesperson, adding that the museum had “committed to lending objects on a rotating basis to the planned new Royal Museum in Benin City, Nigeria”.
The looting of African art took different forms. Many objects were taken by military, administrative or scientific personal during the colonial period between 1885 and 1960. Others were obtained during armed conflict, and still others were “bought” for well below their real value. In one example cited in the report, a mask from the Ségou region in present-day Mali, now displayed at the Quai Branly, was bought in 1932 for 7 francs, “the equivalent of a dozen eggs”, when the masks were selling in France for an average of 200 francs at the time.
"It's entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks,” said Senegal's culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly. “These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today."
Authorities in Benin said they were satisfied with the report’s conclusions and praised France for “endorsing a new vision” of the relationship between France and its former colonies.
Others emphasised that cooperation was key. “It’s not a problem if the works are brought here and then sent back [to France]. The important things is that we have access to them,” said Silvie Memel Kassi, the director of the Museum of Civilisations in Ivory Coast. “It’s not a bad thing in and of itself that the objects are in France. They were inventoried and conserved. The important thing is that we work together.”
The report is part of Macron’s broader efforts to turn the page on France’s troubled relationship with Africa. In a historic meeting with students in Burkina Faso in 2017, Macron recognised the “undeniable crimes of European colonisation” and said: “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries should be in France.”
“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 debate over restitution has “opened up a legal issue, since these objects came here legally given the politics at the time", historian Pascal Blanchard told AFP. "And once these objects are part of our public collections, they cannot be returned to a so-called 'owner', since these owners don’t exist for these museums because these countries did not exist at the time."
Other critics of restitution say many African countries lack the conservation infrastructure to preserve such artifacts properly. In anticipation of the return of some 3,000 works held at the Quai Branly next year, Benin plans to build four state-of-the-art museums. This December Senegal will open its Museum of Black Civilisations, which is planning to borrow works from the Quai Branly and Le Havre Natural History Museum, 200 kilometres northeast of Paris. “Senegal is ready to accommodate these objects,” Coulibaly told Le Monde on Friday.
“We’re proposing a framework that takes into account the time constraints of the requesting nations so that we’re not imposing a vast quantity of restituted objects on them, and are making sure that they actually want restitution, are prepared for it and are in a position to organize it,” Sarr told the New York Times.
The first phase envisioned by the report recommends a formal inventory andthe restitution of major workswhose return has longbeen requested by various African nations or communities.
Among the most prominent objects are statues, doors and thrones looted by the French military in 1892 in present-day Benin. Benin requested their restitution in 2016.
This phase would be “a way of demonstrating the French state’s sincere desire for restitution”, said the report.
In a second phase lasting until 2022, teams of French and African researchers will conduct inventories and make them available digitally. The inventories will provide conservators and academics in Africa with unprecedented access to the expansive French collections, only a small portion of which are on display at any given time.
“Africa is only a step away from its history. We will finally be able to have access to our works,” said Marie-Cécile Zinsou, the Franco-Beninese president of the Fondation Zinsou, which fights for the return of African art to Africa.
During the third open-ended phase, African states that have yet to filerestitution claims will be able to do so. The report notes that the process of restitution should not be limited in time.
It will now be up to Macron to decide how far to go in implementing the report’s recommendations.
On Friday evening he made a first gesture, announcing that 26 works claimed by Benin would be returned “without delay”.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)