When finance minister Tito Mboweni concluded his recent budget speech by highlighting the importance of our arts and culture, and went on to promote the idea of a new national museum among other artistic conduits, he certainly surprised many in the sector.

The question is, do we really need a new museum when our existing ones are underfunded and in a state of disarray? But maybe Mboweni was simply echoing the spirit that is currently sweeping the continent about the importance of national cultural heritage. Maybe what really matters is that the government has publicly stressed that art and culture should be a priority. The details of how it should be done can be refined later.

In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy to make recommendations on how to deal with African cultural assets taken during the colonial era. He invited other European countries with important collections of African art objects, notably Britain, Belgium and Germany, to similarly consider the issue.

Published in November 2018, the report recommended that cultural objects taken without consent be returned permanently, unless it can be proven that they were acquired legitimately. Artwork looting was widespread particularly in the 1890s, during the so-called scramble for Africa. It took various forms, from straightforward theft or spoils of war to purchases under duress, and often for a fraction of the value.

The report found that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”. According to the recommendations, African countries will have to request that the plundered works be returned. The French researchers have facilitated this process by drawing up museum inventories, which have astonished some conservators in Africa who had been far from realising the extent of the pillage.

One major challenge to the restitution process is the law. In France, according to the code of patrimony, public collections are inalienable. French museums cannot legally deaccession artworks, meaning they can not take them out of the collection. The same applies in the UK, Belgium, Italy and Spain, but not in Germany and the Netherlands. In the US, museums are legally able to deaccession and regularly do so. Under French law, an act of parliament is required to approve restitution, but it is a lengthy process. It took eight years to finally repatriate in 2002 the remains of Sarah Baartman to SA.

This is why some European museums are opting for long-term loan options, that are quicker to implement. The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which is situated in Paris and houses some 90,000 African works, has returned looted Nok terracotta figures to Nigeria on a 30-year loan agreement. It is unlikely they will ever leave Nigeria.

Detractors of the current repatriation movement have expressed concerns that objects may be improperly handled, stolen or even sold. The West has long alleged the indifference of African governments, the underfunding of the cultural sector and lack of infrastructure to take proper care of cultural heritage to justify that art objects and artefacts be kept outside of the continent. Of course one may ask what came first. It’s rather presumptuous to expect countries that have been deprived of their artistic history to develop a culture and economy of artwork preservation.

Conservators in Africa generally agree that it will have to be progressive restitution. There are extensive museum rehabilitation plans and new museums projects taking place across the continent. To cite a few, President Macky Sall of Senegal inaugurated the new Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar last December, while the Beninese President Patrice Talon has approved the building of five museums set to open in 2020.

Former president Joseph Kabila announced the opening of a new national museum in the DRC capital Kinshasa in June 2019 . In Ivory Coast, the national museum in Abidjan is being renovated while there are plans for a larger brand new museum. Closer to home, Namibia is building a museum to house cultural artefacts that have been returned by Germany.

There is much happening in Nigeria too. The Benin Royal Museum that will open in Benin City in south-central Nigeria, the place of the former kingdom of Dahomey, will be the permanent home of a collection of Benin bronzes, the famed classical artworks from the 16th and 17th century that were taken by the British troops in 1897. Another museum, the John K. Randle Centre for Yoruba History and Culture, is due to open in Lagos in the next few months.

Steve Ayorinde, the commissioner for tourism, arts & culture of Lagos state, was quoted saying that Africa is “taking seriously the need to have structures so that we can begin returning works”. In SA, the Ifa Lethu foundation is possibly the largest heritage repatriation organisation.

Rather auspiciously in the US, the Block museum is currently presenting Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa, an exhibition that demystifies the assumptions that the arts in Africa only really developed with the arrival of the Europeans in the late 19th century.

This is hopefully the beginning of a movement that is going to enable generations of Africans to recover their heritage from the colonial narrative. From our perspective as art advisers, it would be interesting to see what long-term impact the repatriation of cultural assets might have on inspiring a culture of art-collecting among younger Africans.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

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