French museums urged to return African treasures

A report commissioned by the French President, published Friday, is recommending the country change its strict heritage laws to allow for the return of thousands of African artworks looted during French colonisation.

The director of Dakar's Museum of Black Civilisations, Hamady Bocoum.
The director of Dakar's Museum of Black Civilisations, Hamady Bocoum. RFI / Guillaume Thibault

The report's authors, Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, say that African works being held in French museums should be returned permanently - and not by way of a loan - unless it's proven they were obtained legitimately.

Ninety percent of Africa’s cultural heritage resides outside of the continent, the report found. It recommends altering French law to allow for the repatriation of cultural objects in the event a bilateral deal is struck between France and an African country.

However museums in France fear their collections may be depleted if a precedent is set for the return of artworks - and that private collectors may prompted to move their works to other countries. Critics also argue it's not always clear which artworks aquired by foreigners during the 19th century were looted, and which were transferred to France legally - given the poltics at the time.

African heritage "not for private collections"

Strict French laws forbid the government from ceding state property, and when President Emmanuelle Macron commissioned the report after a trip to Burkina Faso in November 2017, it signalled a radical policy shift. In a speech in Ouagadougou, he said "Africa's heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums".

Interview: Sonia Lawson, director of Togo's Palais de Lomé

Sonia Lawson is the director of the Palais de Lomé, an art and cultural centre in the Togolese capital. She told RFI that hers is not a museum in the western sense and that it is helping Africa go through a process of rediscovering its own history.

"The history of Togo is particular because Togo was colonised first by the Germans, then a part of it was given to what is now Ghana - so the UK - and then the French. We have several objects in western museums, and not just in France," Lawson says. "This report offers a real opportunity to redefine the relationships between Africa and the West."

In Senegal, the director of Dakar's Museum of Black Civilisations, Hamady Bocoum, welcomed the possible return of the Senegalese artefacts - though it's difficult to estimate how many there may be, he told RFI. "The most important thing is the principle. I think that one of the conditions is to have adapted equipment."

Along with statues and masks, Bocoum believes Senegal could ask for the return of El Hadj Omar Tall's sword. He was a religious leader whose weapon was taken by the French army in the late 19th century. "It was a form of humiliation. This sword is over there, we have been lent it twice. Each time, it was extremely expensive. But now we will claim it," Bocoum said.

Paris's Quai Branly museum, founded by former president Jacques Chirac, is home to most of the 90,000 African artworks held in French museum collections.

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