The issue of European nations refusing adamantly to return stolen artefacts that were stolen from Africa during the colonial is one which has always sparked fierce debate. It baffles the mind why European nations do not want to return that which does not belong to them, which they took by force. But many reasons for not taking the restitution path are cited, including the fact that some African museums in some African countries are not secure enough to house these artefacts.
In the midst of all this reluctance, which gets nauseating at times, France's plan to depart from such a hardline stance is shaping up. Some months ago France made it clear that they would work on returning the stolen artefacts that are currently in French museums. Preceding that, French president Emmanuel Macron had said some positive remarks in November 2017 when he visited Burkina Faso, although he was criticised by some on the basis that he was setting conditions for the repatriation of these stolen artefacts yet they truly belong to Africa.
"I want the conditions to be created within five years for the temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage to Africa," Macron said that time, adding that African artefacts "cannot just remain in European private collections and museums." Macron said that returning African art is a top priority for his administration. Pascal Blanchard, a historian, said Mr Macron "made European curators quake in their boots."
A commission was set up to facilitate the return of these stolen artefacts, led by French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, including many other artists, activists and collectors from across Europe and Africa. However, the process of returning the stolen artefacts is not an easy one. The Telegraph described it as a "legal and ethical minefield".
In a press conference at Dakar’s Musée Theodore Monod, which is Senegal’s main collection of traditional African art, a plan was laid out on how to traverse this process, which turns delicate at times. In handling the process, one of the areas to look out for first is to look up for the official inventories to establish what is in French national museums that rightfully belongs to Africa.
Ms Savoy offered some detail, "We have to start setting out the conditions for restitution and determine what this actually means: not only what should be handed back, but also how do we re-contextualize objects that have been in a different setting for so long?"
The commission has found 5 142 objects currently in France’s Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum for Senegal. Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum is a museum for indigenous art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas. 2 000 of the 5 142 objects are photos and pieces of pottery, then there are fishermen’s nets, as well as statues, masks, and textiles.
Felwine Sarr argues that the objects have become part of a diaspora, and that and what arrived in France as loot and as regular purchase is currently mixed. "However, we have to understand the degree of asymmetry in these purchases, and how exactly they took place," he said. "Not everything was illicit, or the product of a military and archeological colonial enterprise."
Credit for these efforts must also go to Benin's president, Patrice Talon, who has been on an offensive to promote African culture and identity through new museum buildings. He’s also been pushing for the looted Dahomey treasures to be brought back to his country.
The concern on the security of some African museums has raised some eyebrows. Pascal Blanchard offered some views, saying that countries like Nigeria which have well-established museums had the capability and solid ingredients for restitution claims while countries like Chad, suffering from chronic impoverishment, "do not currently have museums and cultural heritage services capable of restoring and displaying these objects".
But there is a counter-argument to this, with some claiming that some of the artefacts are of little value to the Europeans as they are unreadable out of their contexts. Malick Ndiaye, director of Dakar’s Museum IFAN said that among the Senegalese artifacts in French hands are a number of old fishnets, that art historians have so far deemed of little value: "the knots in Senegalese fishnets represent ancient mathematical codes. They are in fact a very valuable part of our technological heritage."
More attention will be divided to the commission to see how well they will handle the repatriation process. The fact that there are still some stringent conditions towards the return of the stolen artefacts is a tad unpalatable, but France's departure from the hardline stance of refusing to return stolen artefacts from the colonial era is a welcome one.