Decolonising Europe’s museums

Savoy’s book makes a forceful case for the restitution of stolen African art objects.

Published : Sep 08, 2022 11:00 IST

IT all started in the 1980s when a movement for the restitution of African art began at the behest of several African nations. But much before this, we had the example of successive Indian governments pleading for the return of the Kohinoor diamond from the British.

The process of restitution is sluggish, but the plunder of colonies by imperial nations has aroused enough passion. Social movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter have given it a further impetus. Belgium, which has the world’s leading single collection of African art, has agreed to discuss its acquisitions with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To further increase the pressure on the west, Bénédicte Savoy’s new book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, makes a forceful case for restitution.

The campaign for recovering these stolen art objects has achieved little success until now. A step forward was taken when Savoy, along with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, released a road map in 2018 of the ways and procedures that can be adopted by the erstwhile colonial powers to make amends. The emphasis was on a “new relational ethics” for the western nations to begin making a comprehensive record of the plundered objects and set in motion the process of repatriation. French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to create the conditions for the return of African art to their rightful ownership within five years.

Account of a struggle

Savoy’s book covers the period from 1965 to 1985 and is an account of the struggle that finally led to the adopting of the Savoy-Sarr report. The chronology is often blurred and over-factual, with negligible emphasis on the nuances of the ongoing critical debates and on the struggles in the western part of Africa, thereby neglecting the concerns at the pan-African level. Nigeria occupies the centre stage of her book, though Ghana and Senegal too are western African countries that gained independence earlier than the rest and therefore helped in kick-starting the movement. Many nations that got independence after 1985 have been left out.

Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat
By Bénédicte Savoy, translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich
Princeton University Press
Pages: 240
Price: $29.95

The 1960s saw several African and Asian nations gaining independence. It was, according to Savoy, in 1965 that the Beninese poet-journalist Paulin Joachim wrote the poem “Give Us Back Negro Art”, which was widely circulated in Paris. This lent impetus to the movement which had received a thrust at the Afro-Asian alliance at the Bandung Conference way back in 1955 and at the First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in 1956. Such conferences gave the much-needed drive to the growing black consciousness which began to have a pan-global impact, transcending narrow identities of African nations.

Another important feature of the book is the account of Germany’s role in the loot of its colonies. Savoy especially refers to the provocative role of the physicist Hermann Auer, a former Nazi fanatic, who became the academic director of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, one of the world’s largest science and technology museums. He wrote a contemptuous report that put forward the idea that it was nations with a lower economic status that were struggling for the restitution. Nazi anti-racist ideology underpinned every word he wrote.

The debate that it generated had a positive impact on the movement across the erstwhile colonised world, provoking the newly independent states to lay claim to the invaluable treasure that defined their distinct cultural histories. The motives of shoring up the future histories of their land became fundamental to the struggle..

Flimsy reasons

Understandably, the refusal of the western nations was based on flimsy reasons of underscoring the infrastructural inadequacies of the poorer nations to safely preserve their heritage. For example, Gerhard Baer, director of the Museum of Ethnology and Swiss Museum of Folklore, argued in 1979 that the objects would “have long been destroyed, lost, and forgotten” if it had been left behind by the colonisers.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the opening of the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum on September 22, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the opening of the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum on September 22, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. | Photo Credit: SEAN GALLUP

The book begins and ends with Savoy making an optimistic case for some success in the future, considering that scholars, intellectuals, poets, and the public have gradually become aware of the arrogance and denial of the western nations.

In May 2018, the Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku dressed as a bronze warrior with limbs tied dramatised the imperial history of loot and plunder in the lobby of the Musée d’Aquitaine, in Bordeaux. “I want to go home,” he cried. “Benin. Edo .... Take me back home!” The act symbolised the anxiety of an artefact trapped in the museum and successfully drew attention to the Benin Bronzes, an assortment of several thousand sculptures seized in 1897 during the British attack on Benin City in Nigeria. They still lie in the alien environs of the British Museum and dozens of other museums across the western world. An encouraging outcome is that the Smithsonian Museum has recently agreed to relocate its 39 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, following a similar resolution by Germany’s national museums.

Lack of transparency

Though the Humboldt Forum, a controversial institution that incorporates the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art, finally opened its doors to the public, Savoy is livid at the lack of transparency apparent in the exhibition that does not sincerely acknowledge the African history of blood, sweat, and tears that lies behind the plunder of the colonies. She rejects the school of thought that argues that Germany refrained from making any unfair acquisitions on the ground that there was a blatant connivance between the German naval forces and the government of the times aimed at procuring art objects wherever possible and on every waterfront that the German forces landed, even if “force has to be used”.

The guilt cannot be wiped out without first acknowledging such designs. Savoy feels that no change will come until governments “incorporate the present restitution debate in the longue durée of historical processes” and underscore the awareness of the brutal past and activism that forms the mainspring behind the movement

However, the reader is let down by the apparent absence of the political energy and dynamism that such research must carry with it. Though a renowned specialist on restitution and cultural heritage, Savoy has also overlooked the vital issue of reparation that such acts of plunder rightly involves. Laying stress on merely the historical facts of the role of imperial powers and the flourishing of museums in the wake of colonial conquests does not seem to be enough to usher in any positive developments that may conclude in the happy coming home of the lost treasures of art.

Reclaiming cultural heritage

Reclaiming Africa’s stolen art will remain a vital question in the coming years until the imperial powers capitulate to the legitimate demands of the people to whom the art rightly belongs.

Savoy has, nevertheless, made a significant move towards the final decolonisation of European museums and impacting the African nations into not only setting up new museums but also ratifying laws that focus on the protection of their cultural heritage. Hopefully, her book will also influence and shape the larger global conversations on the subject to counter the ridiculous argument of the western nations that such art objects now form an integral part of their own heritage. To many, it still remains unimaginable to consider the question of restitution.

Shelley Walia has taught Cultural Theory at Panjab University.

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