Twenty-six bronze artifacts taken from Benin during the colonial era will be returned from France to their country of origin. The news comes on the heels of a dramatic report presented at the Élysée palace on Friday, advising French President Emmanuel Macron to enact a permanent restitution agenda for all art taken “without consent” from Africa during the colonial era.
The report, titled “Towards a new relational ethics,” has been met with horror by some French museum and gallery directors, who fear this will open a “Pandora’s Box” of restitution claims that will empty French museums of their treasures.
Macron commissioned the report in March following the French president’s now famous declaration in Ouagadougou last year, in which he stated that he wanted to see the conditions set for a repatriation of African heritage within the next five years. He tasked art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr, the authors of the report, with recommending a path toward this goal.
At the presentation on Friday, Macron called on French museums to identify African partners and begin organizing returns. He also called for the rapid establishment of an online inventory of museums’ African collections, including systematic provenance research, according to a statement from the presidential palace.
The Benin Bronzes
Based on a proposal from the Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac Museum and the French ministry of culture, Macron has ordered the return of 26 works requested by Benin authorities “without delay.” The artifacts in question, which include three statues of the kings of Abomey, thrones and ornamental doors, and a statue of the god Gou, were looted during General Dodd’s bloody siege on the Béhanzin palace in 1892. In Benin, they will be shared with the public in the context of an ambitious new museums project.
France’s former minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, previously rejected an official request for restitution in 2016 on the grounds of the “inalienability” of its national collections.
But Macron’s recent statement at the Élysée implies that there could be a change to French law on the inalienability of objects in the national collection. “Operational and, where appropriate, legislative, measures will be taken to allow these works to return to Benin, accompanied by the know-how of the museum which has preserved them until now,” Macron said.
Benin will now be offered access to the 26 objects on a temporary basis while officials study how to implement the restitution into French law, a spokesperson for the Élysée told artnet News, adding that it’s up to the French ministry of culture to decide how to proceed.
France is beginning with objects from Benin because, to date, it is the only country from which France has received a formal request. But the objects are among some 90,000 works from sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections, according to the report, including nearly 70,000 in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum alone.
in fact, the 26 artifacts returning to Benin have been in the works for nearly a year. “It is a little bit unfortunate that it appears as the sudden decision of Emmanuel Macron,” Felicity Bodenstein, a historian of ethnographic collections at Berlin’s Technical University, told artnet News. “It is not. Curators at the quai Branly have been engaged in this dialogue for quite some time now.”
The French president called on his ministries of culture and foreign affairs to take steps to ensure “African youth has access in Africa and not just in Europe to their own heritage and the common heritage of humanity.”
Looking Beyond France
Other European nations holding African collections acquired under comparable circumstances should also engage in the conversation, Macron urged on Friday. He invited African and European partners to meet in Paris in the first three months of 2019 to “build together this new relationship and policy of exchange.” The consultation will bring together African states and former European colonial powers such as Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
The UK’s British Museum, in particular, holds a number of colonial-era artifacts. Contacted by artnet News, a spokesperson for the museum said that it is barred from deaccessioning objects in its collection under the British Museum Act, but that the trustees welcome Macron’s advocacy for the circulation of objects.
“These are complicated histories and a transparent focus on the provenance of objects is indispensable,” the museum’s trustees wrote in a statement. They pointed out that the British Museum has already committed to lending objects to Benin City’s planned new Royal Museum on a rotating basis, and that it is part of their mission to make the collection as widely accessible as possible to a global public.
“We need to use the extraordinary collections in museums to re-write the narrative of a one-sided history to a shared equitable and collaborative one. The British Museum is ready to play its part in that.”
The topic is of particular interest to Germany, too. Most of the objects headed for a show planned at the new cultural center in Berlin, the Humboldt Forum, date from the colonial era. “German museums will certainly follow suit,” said Felicity Bodenstein. But the debate there is different than in France because Germany cannot pass one law to apply to all of its museums, which are under the jurisdiction of various regional governments. “Decisions get made very differently in these countries so the timing and form of restitution will not be the same,” Bodenstein said.
“The looted art must be returned, this also applies to cultural assets from colonial contexts,” a spokesperson for the German minister of culture Monika Grütters told Monopol. “This presupposes provenance research, which Germany has clearly intensified in recent years and is continuing to expand.”
Savoy and Sarr’s 190-page report is currently available to read online and will be released in book form tomorrow from publishing house Philippe Rey-Seuil.
Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations is open, asking the West to return stolen treasures
PHOTO: The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, loaning works primarily housed in Europe.(Musée Des Civilisations noires)PHOTO: The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, loaning works primarily housed in Europe.(Musée Des Civilisations noires)Photo: The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, loaning works primarily housed in Europe. (Musée Des Civilisations noires)Photo:
About 5,000 items in Paris’s Quai Branly museum come from Senegal. (AP: Amelia Nierenberg)endnoindex
As visitors walk through the Musée des Civilisations noires (Museum of Black Civilisations) in Senegal during its first month, global conversations around looted artifact repatriation are certain to continue.
The West African nation’s culture minister isn’t shy: He wants the thousands of pieces of cherished heritage taken from the continent over the centuries to come home.'It's entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks' - Abdou Latif Coulibaly Click To Tweet
“These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time but illegitimate today.”
Last month, a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended that French museums give back works taken without consent, if African countries request them.Mr Macron has stressed the 'undeniable crimes of European colonization,' adding that 'I cannot accept that a large part of African heritage is in France.' Click To Tweet
The new museum in Dakar is the latest sign that welcoming spaces across the continent are being prepared, this one placing a focus on Africa and its diaspora.
An injection of $48.1 million from China tipped the idea into conception after the decades of inaction.
The idea was conceived when Senegal’s first president, internationally acclaimed poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, hosted the World Black Festival of Arts in 1966.
At the museum’s opening, sculptors from Los Angeles, singers from Cameroon and professors from Europe and the Americas came to celebrate, some in tears.
“This moment is historic,” Senegalese President Macky Sall said. “It is part of the continuity of history.”
The inaugural exhibition looks beyond colonization
Filling the 148,000-square-foot circular structure, one of the largest of its kind on the continent, is complicated by the fact that countless artifacts have been dispersed around the world.
Both the inaugural exhibition, “African Civilisations: Continuous Creation of Humanity,” and the museum’s curator take a far longer view than the recent centuries of colonization and turmoil.
Current works highlight the continent as the “cradle of civilization” and the echoes found among millions of people in the diaspora today.
“Colonisation? That’s just two centuries,” curator Hamady Bocoum said, saying that proof of African civilization is at least 7,000 years old, referencing a skull discovered in present-day Chad.
Like others, Mr Bocoum is eager to see artifacts return for good.
The exhibition includes 50 pieces on loan from France, including more than a dozen from the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
Thousands flock to Africa’s first Comic Con
From the mother of dragons in “Game of Thrones” to Captain America from the “The Avengers”, thousands of comic book and science fiction fans went head-to-head for the best costume at the first Comic-Con Africa on Friday.
Comic Con’s arrival in Africa coincides with a big push by streaming services such as Netflix and Naspers’ Showmax to expand to capitalize on the continent’s love of comics and Hollywood movies.
Tickets for Saturday and Sunday – the most popular days of the three-day event in South Africa – sold out weeks before the launch, Carol Weaving, managing director of organizer Reed Exhibitions, told Reuters.
She said the event had attracted comic, superhero and anime fans from Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria and that it would expand beyond South Africa into other African countries.
As well as international comic book heroes, Comic Con Africa will also showcase local characters like Kwezi and Captain South Africa. International guests included Kevin Sussman from “The Big Bang Theory” and Travis Fimmel from “Vikings”.
Zimbabwean-born comic artist Bill Masuku said the event was a chance for people to learn more about locally produced comics and occupy spaces typically dominated by Hollywood.
Nigerian Artist’s Missing Painting Sells For $1.6M
A famous painting that went missing for decades before turning up in a London apartment has sold for over $1.6 million (£1,205,000). Often dubbed the “African Mona Lisa,” Ben Enwonwu’s “Tutu” smashed sale estimates at an auction in London on Wednesday.
One of a triptych of artworks created by Enwonwu during the aftermath of Nigeria’s bloody civil war, “Tutu” disappeared shortly after being painted in 1974. Its whereabouts remained the subject of intense speculation for over 40 years before the portrait was discovered in a family home late last year.
Depicting the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (abbreviated as “Tutu”), the painting was subsequently authenticated and went under the hammer as part of Bonhams’ “Africa Now” sale. The London auction house initially predicted a price tag of between £200,000 and £300,000 ($275,000 to $413,000), less than a quarter of the final bid.
According to Bonhams, “Tutu” was painted after Enwonwu encountered the princess walking in the Nigerian countryside. The artist created two other pictures of Ademiluyi, both of which remain missing.
The paintings grew in fame not only for their beauty but for the mystery surrounding their disappearance. The eventual discovery of “Tutu” is partly thanks to the efforts of Giles Peppiatt, Director of African art at Bonhams, who for years made it his mission to find them. People brought him a number of prints but they all transpired to be fakes. Then one day in December 2017, he finally found the real thing.
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