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Why African cultural restitution matters

Patrick Gaspard, former United States Ambassador to South Africa, is President of the Open Society Foundations.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently presented an antique sabre to Senegalese President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar. But it was not a gift. The sabre was coming home, more than a century after it had been stolen.

The repatriation of an item with deep historical, spiritual and cultural significance might seem like a mere gesture of colonial redress. But this ceremony was different, and it was about much more than a single physical object. In fact, it was a watershed moment in the West’s recognition of the cultural damage inflicted by colonialism.

The sabre in question belonged to El Hajj Omar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, which once extended from present-day Senegal into Mali and Guinea. Tall was a respected religious leader and anti-colonial resistance fighter.

His weapon, along with tens of thousands of other pieces of looted African heritage, had been in French hands since the 1890s. Exhibited in French museums, the sabre ceased to symbolise the military prowess of a once-powerful dynasty, and instead told the tale of an African empire’s decimation, thereby legitimising the racism and prejudice that underpinned the colonial period.

Tall’s family had been campaigning for the sabre’s return since 1944, and they finally won their fight in November 2019. Descendants travelled to Dakar from towns in Guinea, Mali and Senegal to witness its homecoming. The sabre will remain in Senegal for five years while the French parliament determines whether it — and other objects — will be permanently restituted.

This moment would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. European governments, ministries of culture, museums and universities have long refused to recognise the immorality of the circumstances in which Africa’s cultural patrimony was removed from the continent.

The handover of the sabre was thus highly symbolic, auguring a shift in power dynamics and a renewed respect for Africa’s vibrant history. It also attests to the persistence of Africans — young and old, both on the continent and in the diaspora — in mobilising to demand that leaders of former colonial powers right historical wrongs.

Colonialism rested on the disavowal of African art, music and architecture. Brutal leaders such as Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1960s and 1970s, legitimised horrific abuse and injustices by undermining the culture of African people, thereby erasing their humanity.

For decades, the Open Society Foundations have supported those at the front lines of societal transformation. We recognise the power of art and culture to call into question structural inequalities, challenge prejudice and foster the imagination of a new generation of leaders.

Our cultural heritage forms the bedrock of the stories that we share to make sense of our place in history — and in the world. And at its core, the creation of cultural artefacts is fundamentally a manifestation of human hope.

Recognising this, the Open Society Foundations are launching a new $15-million initiative to strengthen efforts to ensure the restitution and re-appropriation of artefacts looted from the African continent.

Over the next four years, we will be supporting citizens, artists, educators, indigenous communities, civil-society organisations, museums, universities and other institutions working to return Africa’s heritage to its rightful home and to nurture in future generations of Africans a sense of ownership of their history, culture and identity.

Africa’s young people, in particular, have been demanding control over their own destinies, recently ushering in sweeping change in Ethiopia and Sudan. They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage and have been campaigning for the return of African artefacts. Having realised that young people are a critical force on a continent where the population is expected to grow by more than one billion, to 2.5 billion, by 2050, many former colonial powers have begun to listen.

In a 2017 speech delivered to a full auditorium at a university in Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to make the return of African artefacts a priority.

African cultural heritage,” he argued, “can no longer be held captive in European museums.”

And since then, the groundbreaking Sarr-Savoy Report, commissioned by the French government, has launched a global conversation about the return of items looted from Africa. The report’s authors, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr, recommended the immediate, unconditional return of any cultural objects gained through theft, plunder, pillage, despoiling or unequal exchange during colonial times.

Since the report was released in November 2018, the global movement for art restitution has strengthened considerably. Official claims have been filed for the restitution of historical artefacts and human remains to Ethiopia, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria. But a lot of work needs to be done to turn hopes of cultural restitution into reality.

The number of artefacts missing from Africa is staggering. The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium currently holds 180,000 pieces of sub-Saharan African heritage. The British Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris each hold about 70,000 African historical artefacts. This is in stark contrast to the size of the holdings of museums in Africa. Alain Godonou, a historian and curator from Benin, estimates that the inventories of most national museums in Africa do not surpass 3,000 objects.

The Open Society Foundations, working with our African partners and others around the world, are working to change that.

Restitution is about more than confronting the violent legacy of colonialism — a legacy that continues to affect power dynamics in Africa and around the world. It is about supporting the work that young Africans are doing to transform the dated, racist narratives about their diverse cultural heritage and rich history. It is about giving current generations the means to shape a better future for themselves. It is, at its core, about restituting agency to a continent defining its path forward. BM


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