African countries perplexing ‘quiet diplomacy’ in the pursuit of valuable pieces of art looted by the colonialists over a century ago has not resulted in the repatriation of the artefacts. It is time to make loud, firm and vigorous demands. The vast majority up to 90 percent of these artworks lie outside Africa with numerous leaders calling for their return as an honest gesture of addressing colonial injustices meted on the continent.
The return of African icons, both human and cultural, looted during the periods of slavery, empire and colonialism, is essential for us to revisit and re-engage with these important aspects of African history, ideas, personalities and aesthetics. The icons are the naissance of the African Union’s 2063 renaissance agenda.
A number of African countries have called for their valuable artwork and priceless artefacts to be returned. The question of restitution has gathered momentum in recent years and led many museums, many of which house artefacts stolen during conflicts, to examine their role. International museums have always defended the idea of preserving the African heritage in their countries arguing that Africa does not have the requisite infrastructure to take care of them.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr to conduct extensive research into colonial art. According to their report, about 85 – 90% of African artworks and objects were located outside the African continent with the world’s leading museums displaying African sculptures, masks, burial objects, jewelry and ritual objects.
The French national collections alone have 90,000 African objects, 70,000 of which are to be found in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The cultural relics among the metal castings, human remains, carvings, manuscripts, photographs and sound recordings were moved from Africa either through the expeditions of the 1800s, stolen or acquired under questionable circumstances.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread globally in June, anger directed at statues memorializing slavers and colonialists soon turned to Western museum collections. Activists in France seized artifacts from African countries on display at a museum. The activists, who were subsequently arrested and charged with theft, called on France to return the items to their places of origin after being stolen under the conditions of colonialism.While the activists were largely condemned by the French Minister of Culture.
In October, 2020 a court in Paris sentenced the four African activists with fines ranging from €250 to €1000 up to roughly $1,175 for “aggravated theft”. While they avoided a prospective prison sentence and hefty fine, Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza, 41, and other activists from the pan-African group Unity, Dignity and Courage, say that their action at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac was not an attempt at theft. In contrast, in their view, it was an act of “active diplomacy” by a group that believes “African wealth should return to and belong to Africans.”
On the eve of Feb. 9, 1897, ancient art treasures of the Benin empire were stolen. More than 1,000 of the bronzes are held in museums across Europe, with the most valuable collection of the British Museum in London, including the Benin Bronzes. The kingdom of Benin artefacts illegally kept in various museums across Britain and the United States of America have been a source of tourist attraction for both visitors and the Citizens.
But as the debate gains momentum, European countries have been exploring temporary repatriation where the artefacts are given to African countries on a loan, a move countries like Ethiopia have vehemently averse. The artefacts are elaborate and hardly can strangers reproduce the original ones that are popular in Benin Kingdom.
The British Museum, which holds around 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, has restituted no artefacts back to Africa, but “remains open to sharing its collection around the world” according to a spokesperson from the museum. An exhibition of loaned controversial cultural objects, particularly, looted Benin artefacts, is not new. Some foreign museum holders of these artefacts, in the past, had worked in collaboration with the government of Nigeria and showed them on tour exhibitions in Europe and the U.S.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels restituted all of the human remains in its possession 20 years ago, but has not repatriated any cultural artifacts back to the Congo or Rwanda two countries Belgium colonized or other African nations, alternatively providing African governments and institutions with lists of the museum’s inventory.
More recently, the government of the Netherlands returned a unique terracotta head to the Nigerian Embassy in the Netherlands in compliance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, and export of cultural property. The terracotta head credit to be from Ile-Ife in Nigeria, was stopped by Dutch Customs at Schiphol Airport in 2018 in a package addressed to a Dutch national with forged accompanying import credentials. Nigerian government verified the genuineness of the object and formally requested for its repatriation.