Bénédicte Savoy on the African struggle for her art

For decades, African nations have fought for the return of countless works of art stolen during the colonial era and housed in Western museums. IN The African struggle for its art, Bénédicte Savoy brings to light this largely unknown but deeply important history. One of the world’s foremost experts on restitution and cultural heritage, Savoy researches extensive, previously unpublished sources to find that the roots of the struggle go far beyond what recent debates show, and that these efforts have been covered up by countless opponents.

Which prompted you to write The African struggle for its art?

BS: The idea for the book came from research I conducted in 2018 together with Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron. Working on a report on the return of African art kept in French museums, we discovered a whole series of documents buried in the administrative and newspaper archives in Paris and Berlin. It has become apparent that a detailed discussion of colonial collections in European museums has taken place before, culminating between 1978 and 1982. Archives are important – reconstruction of the first restitution debate would not be possible without generally available central archives with precise tools search and user-friendly search systems. A surprising amount of material lurked beneath the carpet of oblivion.

There is a great need to include the current debate on restitution in the longue durée of historical processes, in order to recognize the political, personal, administrative and ideological constellations that have shaped the debate for half a century so far.

Why was African art not returned then?

BS: It almost happened. At the time of the previous debate, African claims were actually limited to very few facilities. But museum circles went into defensive mode after the 1973 UN resolution on restitution, and differing views on restitution at the time were almost exclusively marked by a fundamental and sharp rejection of the demands of the former colonized countries. The book cites many examples from Germany, but the same is true of Britain and France. Simply put, museums lie too. As many protagonists in museum administrations in the 1970s and 1980s honestly documented in publications until the mid-1970s or later in internal correspondence, they knew perfectly well that the vast majority of African objects in their collections date back to the colonial era. To quote a letter from 1897 to the director of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, even in the context of injustice during colonial rule, was “quite difficult to obtain an object without the use of at least a little force”. The museum’s strategy of avoiding and subverting at the time proved ultimately successful – the debate died down.

Is this all about Africa? What about the Parthenon marbles?

BS: The case is, of course, different. If we look for similarities, there is this: for many years it has been said that there is no suitable museum in Greece where marbles would be housed if they were returned. The same argument was used in the debate on returning cultural objects to African countries. Of course, in 2009, a large modern museum, the Acropolis Museum, was opened in Athens. In the 1980s, Greece also showed solidarity with African countries.

What happens when cultural objects are taken to different places? What happens when they return later?

BS: I have been researching for a long time what I call the translocation of cultural objects, that is, their removal from one place and taking them to another. How do companies cope with absence after removal? How do they deal with the presence of newcomers elsewhere? What are the effects at both ends? The result is a fascinating dialectic of absence and presence. For example, the material heritage of Cameroon, which was taken to Germany by colonial violence, created an absence in the place of its origin. This absence has prevented the development of knowledge and awareness of the country’s heritage in Cameroon. At the same time, Western museums often lack knowledge and awareness of parts of their holdings because those parts were separate from their culture of origin. It is possible to explore some kind of collection history and vice versa.

What about the present? And the future?

BS: I am thrilled and excited to see the recent returns from the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, seized in 1892 in the then Kingdom of Dahomey, in the Republic of Benin. It was a historical experience to be present both at their departure after the final exhibition in Paris and at their arrival in Benin, where they were greeted with great solemnity but also true joy. For me, the importance of the moment was similar to that of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I look forward to seeing further commitments put into practice, such as Germany’s expressed intention to return so-called Benin bronzes, which the British originally looted in Benin City (now Nigeria) and then scattered in the art market. Playing again on time, as in the 1970s, and denying the cultural heritage of humanity for the purpose of national self-affirmation is not an option for the future.

Benedict Savoy she is a professor in the Department of Art History at the Technical University of Berlin and a professor at the Collège de France in Paris from 2016 to 2021. She is a co-editor Translocations: histories of dislocated cultural assets; Acquisition Cultures: History of World Art in Western Markets; and The museum is open: according to the transnational history of the museum. She is the author (along with Felwine Sarr). Restitution of African cultural heritage: towards a new ethics of relationsknown as Sarr-Savoy report. He lives in Berlin.

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