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Art

Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations is open, asking the West to return stolen treasures

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Museum of Black Civilisations building is seen from the road, a beige circular building with a multi-storey glass entrance.

Photo: China brought the idea into reality, injecting $48.1 million into construction. (Musée Des Civilisations noires)

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

Visitors view various artworks in the shape of poles at varying heights at the Museum of Black Civilisation.

PHOTO: The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, loaning works primarily housed in Europe. (Musée Des Civilisations noires)

Perhaps reflecting the tenuous hold that African nations still have on their own legacy objects, the museum will not have a permanent collection.

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.

An exhibition space shows three mannequins wearing traditional African textiles.

Photo: About 5,000 items in Paris’s Quai Branly museum come from Senegal. (AP: Amelia Nierenberg)

The exhibition includes 50 pieces on loan from France, including more than a dozen from the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

More than 5,000 pieces in the Quai Branly come from Senegal alone, Mr Bocoum said.

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