Ongolo Proud African

Europe refusing to return Africa's colonial artefacts

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
21 September 2020

The 2018 Marvel Studios blockbuster, Black Panther, deserves some credit for thrusting African art and culture into the global mainstream. Art lovers were intrigued by a scene in the African exhibition hall of the fictional version of the British Museum in London, which Human Rights lawyer and author, Geoffrey Robertson, famously called "the world's largest receiver of stolen property". Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, summed up the sentiments of many Africans when he said: "How do you think your ancestors got this [Wakanda artefact]? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?" Indeed!

Precious African art is housed in European museums

The colonialization of Africa, also known as the Scramble for Africa, lasted less than 100 years from the late 1800s until the second half of the 1900s. This period was characterised by the transfer of hundreds of thousands of valuable artefacts which are currently housed in museums across Europe such as the British Museum; Humboldt Forum in Berlin; the Musee du quai Branly in Paris; and, The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium.

Mask made from wood, pigment, plant fibre and metal. It was taken from the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and can be found at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba | ONGOLO
Mask made from wood, pigment, plant fibre and metal. It was taken from the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and can be found at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba | ONGOLO

Since independence, African countries have made repeatedly made calls for the return of heritage pieces which include paintings, sculptures, photographs, jewels and human remains. Zambia first asked for the return of a 250,000-year-old skull of the Broken Hill Man, aka Rhodesian Man, back in 1972. Scientists believe that it holds clues to the beginning of mankind. No progress has been made as it was deemed that pursuing the claim would damage diplomatic relations between Zambia and Great Britain.

The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) was meant to settle the issue of colonial restitution once and for all. But in the 13 years since it was implemented, there has been a lot of talk, many promises, but little action. That is, until the youngest-ever elected French president made a maiden voyage to Ouagadougou in November 2017 and offered these words of hope:

“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural patrimony of several African countries is in France” – Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron promised temporary of permanent restitution of African patrimony

Macron promised to make restitution a top priority of his first term which ends in May 2022. He commissioned the November 2018 report by the Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, and French historian, Benedicte Savoy, which concluded that restitution was the right course of action given that 90-95% of African art remains outside Africa.

But since the release of the report, not a single piece of art has crossed the Mediterranean Sea. France has promised to return 26 pieces to Benin by 2021. 26 out of 90,000! That is hardly progress! There has been strong resistance from museums across Europe to support the Macron initiative. Other roadblocks that have arisen include the need to change the heritage legislation within the European Union.

Will changing the law really make a difference? Greece, which is part of the EU, has been unsuccessfully trying to get back The Parthenon Marbles, aka the Elgin Marbles, from the British Museum since the 1800s. Efforts by UNESCO to mediate between Greece and the UK in recent times were unsuccessful though Brexit may have opened a window of opportunity.

What should Africa do to get closure on this matter?

A collection of historical skulls from Africa at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba | ONGOLO
A collection of historical skulls from Africa at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba | ONGOLO

Africa has two options: restitution or compensation

Plan A: Pursue restitution

Africa needs to pressure Europe until promises made are kept. European museums cannot distance themselves and their possession of artefacts from the state acts of colonialism. The onus is on them to demonstrate that they paid a fair price (or any price!) and that the good faith principle was upheld for all parties.

Africa can learn from Jewish restitution efforts, as they have had some success in the retrieving artwork stolen by the Nazis. The World Jewish Restitution Organisation (WJRO) convinced 47 countries to sign the Terzin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which has given families some basis on which to make claims. Just last week the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland reversed a previous stance and agreed to pay the heirs of a Jewish art collector from Berlin for 200 works of art. However, not all restitution cases are successful as the Cassirer family discovered when they lost a 15-year legal battle.

What Africa needs is a clear action plan:

  • Collective response: the African Union, as the representative for all 55 countries in Africa, is best placed to drive this initiative. Countries are making individual claims which gives them little bargaining power
  • Sponsors: Open Society has generously pledged $15m to support the restitution drive. We need more financial sponsors (crowdfunding?) and champions. Jewish restitution efforts in the United States were boosted by President Trump’s signing of The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act into law in May 2018
  • Court of public opinion: the world is becoming increasingly conscious about being seen to do the right thing. Not enough is being done to raise awareness in Africa and beyond about this issue. Africans like Trevor Noah, who has a global audience, should be drafted to lead the media offensive
  • Ruthless negotiation tactics: it is time to up the ante and hire the the type of negotiators who would make the dream team of Johnnie Cochran and Robert Kardashian look like amateurs. They will be able to establish everything from the value of all the artefacts to ways to legally net off this value against the inter-governmental debt owed to Europe. It is time to get tough and creative

Plan B: Seek compensation

If my radical approach is unpalatable (I should have mentioned that my nickname was once Queen Boudica), then we should pursue Plan B, which is to seek compensation. This can come in various forms:

  • Financial compensation: Europe to pay the full value of the artefacts to the country of origin
  • Benin Dialogue approach: this Nigerian group was established in 2007, in partnership with European museums, and has met six times in the last 13 years. Gosh! The group has now agreed to establish a new Royal museum in Benin City, Edo State, with loaned pieces from European museums. The issue of ownership remains unresolved and may prove to be a stumbling block ahead of the opening in 2021
  • Royalties: the least controversial option would be for museums housing African artefacts to pay African countries a percentage of their annual revenue as royalty

Final word

Some fundamental questions remain unanswered: do Africans care enough about this issue? Do we want the artefacts or the money? What is interesting to note about Jewish restitution is that some of the recovered pieces were then quickly sold off by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Do we have the capacity to maintain these artefacts? We can barely keep the lights on and should be honest about our infrastructural limitations.

While the African Union is trying to figure out how to resolve restitution or compensation, let us do what we can to support the development of the art industry in Africa. We can start by visiting local museums which are in desperate need of revenue to survive. Let us also buy African art - I pick up pieces whenever I travel.

Art is simply a record of society at a given point in time. By supporting local artists today, we will ensure that future generations have an accurate depiction of what life was like in 2020.

© 2020 Muloongo Muchelemba. All Rights Reserved