A pivotal report calls for thousands of artworks to leave French museums and return to West Africa. An artist, a historian and a philosopher debate what should happen — and what these objects could mean to young Africans who have never seen them.
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When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, told students in Burkina Faso in 2017 that he wanted to see a “temporary or permanent restitution” of African art in French collections, no one in the museum world could be sure whether it would happen. Then came publication on Nov. 21 of a blockbuster report, written for Mr. Macron by Bénédicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal, which calls for the return of possibly thousands of works of art. Suddenly, the door was opening to what could be the largest shake-up ever of European museums with objects acquired during the colonial era.
Mr. Macron’s office then announced the return “without delay” to Benin of 26 sculptures in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly, which holds more than two-thirds of France’s 90,000 African treasures. But doing so, the report allows, may require new legislation to enable national museums to deaccession state-owned art. The report has now made waves across Europe, and directors of museums with large colonial holdings, including the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Berlin’s soon-to-open Humboldt Forum, have expressed serious reservations about Ms. Savoy and Mr. Sarr’s call for restitution.
But how do Africans see the challenges, both practical and philosophical, of restituting works of art? What does the Savoy-Sarr report augur for African museums, African governments and African artists? And what new meanings might these works of art accrue if they are returned to where they were made centuries ago?
I posed those questions recently to three people with deep experience in African art. Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese philosopher and professor of French at Columbia University who advised Ms. Savoy and Mr. Sarr on parts of the report; Cécile Fromont, associate professor at Yale University, is a French art historian who specializes in exchanges between African and European populations; and Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-American artist, whose painstaking fictional portraits were seen last year in a Whitney Museum solo show and are on view through Feb. 3 in “For Opacity,” at the Drawing Center in Manhattan. These are edited excerpts from the conversation, over dinner at a Harlem restaurant. (The menu, suitably, was French/West African.)
Before turning to the report, I thought I’d ask you about your initial experiences of African art, in your youths. Were they in western institutions?
TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA I was born in Ife, Nigeria, and moved to the United States when I was 5. First to California, and then I grew up in Alabama. I think the first time I encountered African art was when I went back to Ife. I was 16. We went to the university where my parents met, which has some of the Ife bronze heads [a suite of extraordinary copper busts from the 13th to 14th centuries]. I remember we had a tour, and the tour guide was salty about how few bronzes were left at the institution. I’d never seen them before in my life, yet I knew immediately what I was looking at.
SOULEYMANE BACHIR DIAGNE I grew up in Senegal, and did my primary education there. I went to the Musée Dynamique in Dakar as a student. But the first time I really encountered African art was at the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris.
The anthropology museum. Picasso’s haunt.
MR. DIAGNE Exactly. When it was still at the Trocadéro. It must have been back in 1974. I was taken there by my cousin, who was an archaeologist. And I had a wonderful tour.
CÉCILE FROMONT I was born and raised in Martinique, which is still part of France. To some extent, living as part of the diaspora, African expressive cultures were all around. For me the carnival masquerades would have been the most striking, intimate encounters with the black Atlantic.
Do you remember your first reactions to Mr. Macron’s speech in Ouagadougou, when he called for the “temporary or permanent restitution” of African art?
MS. FROMONT I was astonished. I never thought in my lifetime, or even in my children’s lifetimes, that this change of tone would happen in France. At the same time, because it was such a political speech, I wondered if anything would come of it. And then the report was another thunderbolt! The report has no legal force. But these words are out there, with some political sanction behind them.
MR. DIAGNE It was only when I heard that Macron had nominated Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, whom I know, that I thought: something new is happening. They were not going to deliver some watered-down report.
Ms. Savoy, an art historian, recently resigned as an adviser to the Humboldt Forum, a new museum in Berlin; she said it wasn’t taking issues of provenance seriously enough.
MR. DIAGNE She is someone who stands her ground, and that is the case for Felwine also. I spoke to them often as they were writing the report. They consulted widely. They traveled back and forth to Senegal, Mali, Cameroon. And they spoke with people in the president’s office, who gave them legal advice.
The biggest surprise, even shock, of the Savoy-Sarr report is that it explicitly says that only full restitution of works of art will be acceptable. Curators have dodged this debate before by pointing to France’s centuries-old “inalienability” law; national institutions do not have the right to deaccession anything in a public collection. Savoy and Sarr say: no, the law has to change, it is the only morally responsible thing to do.
MS. FROMONT That’s why the report is potentially so impactful. It demands that the logic of France’s relationship to Africa be renegotiated. It’s not simply about the objects, and where they are. By insisting on full restitution, the idea of “long-term loans” to African countries becomes as absurd as it sounds.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA There has to be a principle that both African and European institutions agree with.
MR. DIAGNE When I had my first conversations with Felwine, he was telling me that many of his interlocutors — civil servants, functionaries, or museum people — would tell him, “You see, it is so complicated legally. We should really agree on the principle that these objects need to circulate.” The concept of circulation was being sold to him. And he said, yes, circulation makes sense. Somehow Africa has to share its art with the rest of the world. But Macron said “restitution,” and restitution has a meaning.
So the authors said, we will be sticking to that word. If there is going to be circulation, it should be Africa lending the objects, not the other way around.
MS. FROMONT Maybe in the future African countries will make long-term loans to Quai Branly!
In announcing the return to Benin of more than two dozen masterpieces in Quai Branly, Mr. Macron said “legislative measures, if necessary” would be taken.
MR. DIAGNE These 26 objects were a good place to start, for many different reasons. First, symbolically: This was the kind of restitution that would give full weight to Macron’s promise. These were spoils of war, taken punitively after a well-documented historical battle, and put in the Trocadéro. They were taken directly from a king, the king of Dahomey. The second aspect is that some of these works were already lent to Benin. They were on view in Cotonou in 2006, and drew 275,000 visitors in an African country where people do not usually go to museums.
MS. FROMONT One of the most striking photographs of the Cotonou exhibition of the Dahomey treasures shows this long line of schoolchildren waiting to go in. And that is everything. Even if it’s sentimental to some extent, it’s also historically powerful in the French imagination. French national collections are central to the education of the citizen. That’s what the Louvre was meant to do: create the French citizen. So if it’s that important for France, you have to be really hypocritical to say that it’s not equally important for the children of Benin.
These works slated to return to Benin are clear examples of plunder. But the report implies that every object that left Africa during the colonial era is a possible candidate for restitution — that just because a work of art was bought, rather than pillaged, it may still be ill-gotten. This is a recipe for emptying Europe’s museums, isn’t it?
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA Absolutely! [Laughter] First of all, the whole concept of provenance is hogwash in that respect. The museums desperately want to find an original proof of purchase, but there is no original sale, not usually. They have always gone through many hands.
Still, it’s not so much that we’re returning them back to their original home. The whole concept of “return” is very strange to me, because we know what they’re returning to is not where they came from. The context is completely altered. Yet I also understand that seeing the Benin Bronzes [over 1,000 plaques and sculptures looted nearly two centuries ago from the Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria] in the British Museum is even less natural than seeing them in an African museum.
MR. DIAGNE We should not dismiss the idea that the colonial space was also a space of transaction, though that would probably be the exception. But Toyin makes a crucial point: To what degree can you have consent within a colonial context? Michel Leiris, in “Phantom Africa” [from 1934], tells the story of ethnologists who wanted these sacred objects; and then out of guilt they paid a few francs. Technically, they “bought” them, but we see what buying means.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA I am looking forward to seeing these objects escape from the trauma of colonialism at some point. Every time we discuss these objects, we mention the “violence” of colonialism — but many were created before that!
I see a tension in the report between two ideas. On the one hand, Ms. Savoy and Mr. Sarr are talking about African art as the heritage of world civilization — these are masterpieces that speak to everyone. On the other, they are talking about “rightful owners,” and saying that these works are incomplete in a European museum.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA They actually make this point at the end of the report, about “creolization.” These works of art now have European and African histories. We want a more hybrid understanding, and we still want these objects to circulate. But they should circulate from Africa! And within Africa. And not just within a European definition of what counts as art.
MR. DIAGNE Sub-Saharan Africa cannot be the only region of the world where 90 to 95 percent of its heritage is abroad.
MS. FROMONT For objects to circulate globally, with real fluidity, Africans have to have the means to participate. If they have ownership of the objects, then they can participate in the exchange. They can send some of the African patrimony abroad, and receive other pieces in return. Whereas long-term loans from Europe to Africa don’t change the structure of the relationship. What matters in this debate is that the asymmetry between the two sides is so grotesque — there is no other word.
MR. DIAGNE There is a word that the report uses: resocialiser. These objects, if they go back to Africa, have to be “resocialized” — in other words, they are going to take on new meanings. It’s not a matter of reconstituting them whatever authenticity they had before.
Recently, I have been working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on an upcoming exhibition on the Sahel region [of West Africa], and they want to borrow a piece from Senegal. This object, that we cherish in Africa, needs to be shown in the United States.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA But why does it need to be shown only at an institution like the Met?
MR. DIAGNE Because a culture is always on display. One place to do that is at the Met — and if you say, “This comes from Senegal, from the Musée de l’IFAN, and it’s going back there,” it means: You have the privilege to see it here in New York, but Africa is where it belongs.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA I see what you’re saying, and O.K., I don’t want to clear out museums. But what really hurts me, as an artist, is: Why are the Western institutions the most valid ones? What I’d like to see us move toward is the construction of institutions on the continent on par with Western institutions. I would love to have my work one day to be in Lagos, to be in Dakar, without any asterisk attached to it.
MS. FROMONT We can’t even fathom what new African museums could be, and what they could do. Look at Latin America, for example. The museological innovations there — unique types of exhibitions, involvement with the communities — challenge in all the best ways what big museums around the world have been doing. When you think about the talent and expertise born from an enriched African museum landscape: that’s exhilarating.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA I thought about the contemporary art world a lot when I was reading the report, too. If you were to put these institutions in Africa, it would really change the landscape of how people move in our world. We say we’re “global,” but really we’re not. There’s Dakar, and Johannesburg, but that’s kind of it.
The director of Quai Branly called the report “a bad answer to the courageous question posed by the president.” And other directors have said the best place to narrate these plural histories is in a universal, encyclopedic museum, like the Met or the British Museum. We know they have colonial baggage; we know most Africans can’t even get a visa to come see them. But what do you think of the argument that universal museums have a unique capability to put these artworks in their full context?
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA I just think that reeks of colonizing the meaning of these objects. No one on the other side is speaking. We don’t even know what Africans would say, because they haven’t had the opportunity. All we’re asking, and I think what the report is saying, is: just give us a chance to try.
MS. FROMONT To argue that the universal museum, founded in Europe in a particular historical context, is a solution for the entire world is maybe a little hypocritical. A true global museum needs a multiplicity of perspectives, including from African youth who will see their heritage and become the new thinkers and writers of the next generation. And of course it’s nerve-racking when objects move, in any context — things get lost, things get broken. But there is so much to be gained by it, for everybody.
MS. OJIH ODUTOLA What new languages can form when a child looks at these objects? What new art can come from that? Seeing the Ife bronzes as a teenager, seeing the scarification, seeing that language of the skin, left an indelible mark in me, because now I do that in my work, even if I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time.
MR. DIAGNE So this brings me back to this word “resocalizing.” It’s not a matter of restituting these objects to the particular ethnic group they belong to, in order to replace them in the rituals they were part of. That’s impossible. Malraux famously said that art starts when the gods have departed. And it’s true, for African art and for Western art. Yet these objects still have an aesthetic intensity — these objects are energized. And what is asked in this report is the freedom to create a new energy there.