While art historians and curators have long raised the matter of restitution, some collectors have started to repatriate artworks by way of auctions or worldwide campaign, and activists have taken direct action against European museums to retrieve art items they say belong to Africa. Across the continent, various African countries have made formal requests for the repatriation of their artifacts from European collections with no avail. They failed to gain traction until recently thanks to a growing political emancipation from European countries as well as a changing view of European colonialism in Africa. Now, several restitutions are initiated by the countries including France, United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium, which presently owns the works instead of the originated countries.
In France, the existence of a law dating back to the 16th century prevented cultural institution from removing any art objects of their collections, except for long-term loans. Since 2010, the government clarified the rules with a new law, which authorizes the restitution in rare cases requiring approval by a council responsible of examining the possibility of repatriation. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron gave a speech in Burkina Faso, in which he promised that his government would return African artifacts and items to their countries. A year after, he commissioned a report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, in which the authors detailed a procedure for the return of an estimated 90,000 sub-Saharan African art objects that are mainly held in the Quai Branly Museum.
In 2020, the National Assembly of France has unanimously approved a bill to return historic artifacts to African countries. The artifacts from French collections include 26 objects of Paris’ Musée du quai Branly looted from the royal palace of Abomey in 1892, which would be returned to Benin. And a sword with its scabbard owned by Omar Tall – a Senegalese anti-colonial leader, which was already on loan at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, would be transferred to Senegal. These restitutions are promising, but a drop in the bucket compared to France’s total holdings. Some artists also argue that not all looted artworks will necessarily return to their originating country due to faulty traceability and territorial reconfiguration.
In the United Kingdom, art institutions such as the British Museum which also featured objects looted under the British imperial rule have been slow to follow in French’s footsteps. They have cited insurmountable legal hurdles to return art objects, focusing instead on establishing partnership with African museums. For example, the British Museum is supporting the construction of a new museum in Benin City, Nigeria, to permanently display art objects. Although the museum has intended to lend artworks including Benin Bronzes looted by the British Empire in the 19th century, it maintains that full transfer of ownership would not be legally possible. For now, many institutions are waiting for government guidance to assess repatriation requests.
In Germany, a panel of activists did not wait for the French President’s restitution speech to campaign for museum transparency and colonial objects repatriation. They have campaigned against the establishment of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, an ethnological museum which was inaugurated last year. However, German museums which are independent or semi-public cultural institutions face fewer legal obstacles towards restitution than in France. In 2019, culture ministers from all German states made a joint declaration on the handling of colonial collections, which are scattered in multiple museums across the country. The same year, the federal government entered into historic talks to repatriate its holdings of Benin Bronzes to their home country of Nigeria. This year, they have decided to fully return the looted objects by the end of 2022.
In Belgium, the impact of France’s declarations has also led to decisions on updating relevant laws and forming partnerships with African countries. This year, a group of independent scholars and experts urged officials to identify objects that should be returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Few months later, the Belgian government agreed to retrocede stolen objects during the colonial era to the Congo. The majority of these artefacts are held in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, an ethnography and natural history museum. Officials have determined that about 0.3% of the objects in the museum’s collection have been identified as loot, around 60% were acquired legitimately, and the remaining object’s provenance is unknown.
In other countries, the restitution movement has been inching forward with the objective of turning the page on colonization. It remains to be seen how far the wave will go. However, African countries have the right to rebuild their cultural heritage with stolen objects that are exhibited in Western museums. They have built their own museums which appear incomplete without the addition of missing art pieces. Today, various artists, curators, and historians are participating in debates or initiatives to explain the importance of getting back African art objects on their continent of origin.