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Africa's art goes back home

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
November 9, 2021

France is returning artworks acquired in colonial times to Benin. Germany is also open to restitutions. How are other European countries addressing the issue?

Frankreich Ausstellung Rückgabe Raubkunst an Benin Quai Branly Museum Paris
Image: Pascal Rossignol/REUTERS

They are works of art of great symbolic value — intricately carved thrones, richly decorated doors and impressive statues.

Each of the statues, for example, is a symbolic representation of a monarch of the former kingdom of Dahomey: King Glele as a lion-man or King Behanzin, the last to rule over the kingdom before French colonization, as half-human, half-shark.

In a symbolic act, France is now returning these objects to Benin in West Africa, where the former kingdom of Dahomey was located. It is the first significant return by France to its former colony since it gained its independence in 1960.

"It's a historic moment for both countries," art historian and entrepreneur Marie-Cecile Zinsou told DW. Zinsou is president of the Zinsou Foundation, which promotes contemporary art in Africa and leads cultural and educational initiatives. In 2014 she also opened the first museum for contemporary art in Benin.

She has been closely following the current restitution process. "I am very proud, as a citizen of both France and Benin, to witness an intelligent dialogue that has long been unbalanced."

Changing mindsets throughout Europe

The European museum landscape is now being reshaped, but it has been an arduous process to get Europe to accept even discussing the issue in the first place.

Like Benin, many African states have been fighting for more than a century for the return of their artifacts stolen during colonial times.

The most prominent examples are the pieces known as the Benin Bronzes, from today's Nigeria.

Germany's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation retains the second largest collection of these priceless bronzes, which were stolen in 1897 by British soldiers from the royal palace in Benin City, in the north of what is now Nigeria.

At the beginning of the year, Germany agreed to return important pieces from its collection to Nigeria in 2022.

A series of artworks, known as the Benin Bronzes, with labels in a protective case
The works known as the Benin Bronzes are actually artifacts made of brass and ivory Image: Johan von Mirbach/DW

The Netherlands is also willing to return items acquired through inequitable conditions.

At the beginning of the year, Belgium returned some important artworks taken during the colonial era, transferring ownership rights from Tervuren's Royal Museum for Central Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The situation in Europe and Africa is developing very quickly," notes art historian Zinsou.

In addition to restitution, she points out another notable development: the targeted reconstruction of collections in the countries of origin: "In Kinshasa, they are reflecting on what they have in their national collection, how they show their history and what is missing. And if there are missing pieces that have been identified in European collections, then they recreate them, by asking for information on these pieces," says Zinsou.

Marie-Cecile Zinsou, a woman holding a DW microphone.
Marie-Cecile Zinsou is the daughter of Lionel Zinsou, former Prime Minister of Benin Image: DW/R.Guézodjè

Similar projects are taking place in Gabon, she adds — a demonstration of new approaches being developed, as Zinsou explains: "It's not about, 'Give us everything back or we will wage war against you!' That's not what it's about at all. We are not into replaying history; we are engaging in the future."

For Bonaventure Ndikung, who will become the director of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the World's Cultures) in 2023, the future needs to begin with reconciliation, and that requires apologies. "This is being done now and more will be done," says the Cameroonian art curator, referring to the current debates on restitution between Africa and Europe. "But these are just the first steps, we need to keep going."

Africa's lost heritage

Experts estimate that 80-90% of Africa's cultural heritage can be found in European museums, or rather in their storage. Only a fraction of their massive collections has ever been exhibited.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, there was a trend of establishing so-called ethnological museums, not only in metropolises such as London, Paris and Berlin, but also in smaller cities such as the Linde Museum in Stuttgart.

There was a strong competition between ethnological museums to create the most impressive collections of artifacts. Adventurers, scientists, and missionaries all contributed to bringing pieces to Europe.

UK's guarded watch on colonial artifacts

Colonial officers also simply took items away from local populations. One well-documented case is of a drum known as the Ngadji, a sacred and revered object for the Pokomo tribe in Kenya. Despite their demands for restitution, it is still in the British Museum.

The London museum also houses the world's largest collection of Benin Bronzes. Nigeria has long been demanding the return of the artifacts, with a renewed official request placed in October 2021.

The British Museum's reply to DW's interview request came in the form of a short written statement: "The Museum understands and recognizes the significance of the issues surrounding the return of objects [...].We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time — whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange."

New museum spaces needed in Africa

British art historian John Picton, who worked for both the British Museum and the state museum commission in Nigeria, mentions one issue that has been repeatedly cited as a reason to retain the pieces, and that is "the lack of any facilities to actually properly house this material," he told DW. "I'm afraid I do take the view that simply to send it back with no concern for proper storage, security, conservation, climate control and what not, is simply irresponsible."

The new Edo Museum of West African Art is being built in Benin City, Nigeria, but it is far too small to be able to exhibit all the bronzes there, says Picton. He suggests that only the bronzes that are in the British Museum's storage should be returned, so that art from sub-Saharan Africa can still be seen in Great Britain.

Frankreich | Rückgabe von Raubkunst nach Benin | Emmanuel Macron
French President Macron next to the 19th-century Throne of King Ghezo, which now returns to BeninImage: Michel Euler/AP Photo/picture alliance

A new museum is also being built in Abomey, the former royal city of today's Benin — for the artworks that are being returned from France.

People there are hoping that more returns will follow this first symbolic restitution by the former colonial power. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has set up new laws requiring his country to return items that were unfairly acquired during the colonial era.

Nadir Djennad and Stefan Dege contributed to this article with interviews.

This article was translated from German.