Ayodeji Rotinwa, World Politics Review
COTONOU, Benin—During a February press conference announcing a new exhibition of newly repatriated treasures, Jean-Michel Abimbola, Benin’s minister of culture, was asked by a British journalist to address the common claim that European museums are better able to care for African artifacts than African ones. He responded curtly.
“I’m not sure we can continue to support this argument vis-à-vis Benin,” Abimbola said. “This will amount to asking whether Black people have souls, and I would not like to answer this question.”
His statement was a strong one and underscored the importance of the new exhibition, titled “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation,” which celebrates the return of 26 royal artifacts that had been looted from the Dahomey Kingdom by the French colonial army in 1892. The exhibit, which opened at Cotonou’s Presidential Palace in late February, displays the returned works alongside art by contemporary Beninese artists.
Until recently, European museums holding cultural, religious or historical artifacts similarly pillaged from former colonies have not treated the idea of returning the artifacts to African countries with seriousness exhibited by Abimbola.
When African nations first requested their repatriation, they were ignored and evaded, but over time, the institutions of their former colonizers turned to outright refusal. Museums in France, the U.K., Germany and elsewhere saw the art as rightfully acquired trophies: the spoils of war.
The claim that African governments lack the infrastructure to care for the artifacts is just one strategy used to evade restitution. Some European institutions began to offer to “circulate” the artifacts as temporary loans to African museums, while others strategically delayed restitution negotiations by insisting that African countries first bolster their claims by undertaking detailed research into the provenance of the artifacts. In one particularly egregious example, the British Museum ignored calls to return several famous Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, claiming it was forbidden from disposing of the objects—and at the same time sold 30 smaller Bronzes to Nigerian buyers on the open art market.
Then, in November 2018, the Sarr-Savoy report was published. Commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron and written by Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, this report made waves with its firm recommendation that African artworks be returned to African governments both unconditionally and irrevocably. It further asked the French government to make African artworks an exception to its inalienability law, which deems heritage as nontransferable state property. French museums, meanwhile, were called on to improve their transparency by publicly disclosing which African artifacts they have in their collections and digitizing them to make them accessible outside of Europe.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s only been three years since the Sarr-Savoy report was published, because so much has changed,” said Dan Hicks, author of “The Brutish Museums” and curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, in a phone interview with WPR. “So many positions [in favor of retention] that were still being repeated … have eroded away.”
The Sarr-Savoy report had a domino effect across European and American public art institutions, as well as private organizations. In Washington, the Smithsonian Institution has announced it will return most of the Benin Bronzes in its possession. Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has made a full inventory of its own African works and has sent the list to the Congolese government ahead of a planned return. And though France fell far short of exempting all African artworks from its inalienability law, it did make an exception for the 26 royal treasures now on display in Cotonou.
Even Savoy did not anticipate this turn of events. “We thought it was an impossible mission. In France, we have this ideology of inalienability, and it seemed impossible to destroy this dogma, but it’s destroyed now,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Having seen the exhibition in Cotonou, it’s clear we have moved from ‘Mission Impossible’ to ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Savoy added.
Still, restitution successes are scattershot. Campaigns in Nigeria, Senegal, Benin, Ethiopia and Congo have gained some traction, but Cameroon, for instance, which has claims to about 40,000 works in German museums alone, has only had a few returned. Collections transparency has not yet improved, making it difficult for countries to claim the art. And in France, Macron himself has doubled back on his former “radical” rhetoric supporting restitution. At a ceremony marking the departure of the 26 artifacts to Benin, for instance, he said it would be “a terrible vision if France simply dispatched the heritage of other countries and let each take back its treasures.”
Regardless, according to Hicks, “This is now a conversation about how to return, not whether to return.”
In the four years since the Sarr-Savoy report was published, a few countries—including Senegal, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin, Nigeria and Ethiopia—have had significant successes, or at least movement, around the restitution of ancestral objects. After Nigeria, Benin’s have arguably been the most impressive. Its government-led campaign has set a precedent for extracting artifacts from France that other countries, such as Cote d’Ivoire and Seychelles, are now following, according to Savoy.
At first, the Beninese government broadly asked for France to return an unspecified number of artifacts. When that effort met roadblocks, its leaders changed tack and instead requested the release of a specific category of works related to a specific event: the pillaging of an Abomey palace by the French military in 1892. It worked: In November 2020, the French Senate unanimously approved the law that exempted these particular works from the inalienability policy.
“It would have been better to have one general law to change the state of colonial cultural goods,” Savoy told me. “But for me, it’s one step. It is impossible to go back.”
But the path ahead, too, is paved with French skepticism. In an interview with the French wire service Agence France-Presse, France’s minister of culture, Roselyne Bachelot, insisted that the Benin bill “in no way challenges the principle of inalienability.” The repatriation of the artifacts was “not an act of repentance,” she said, but one of “friendship and trust.”
“This is now a conversation about how to return, not whether to return.”
Benin will be counting on that friendship. The country’s government has linked the restitution of these artifacts to its development goals, which have included a massive investment in tourism. In fact, the French Development Agency has partly funded those efforts, too, offering loans at undisclosed “below-market rates.”
“The government’s policy is to make the restitution, sharing and circulation of cultural goods a factor in the fight against poverty, in the creation of jobs and wealth, and a tool for socio-economic development,” Abimbola told me in an email interview, noting that Benin plans to invest 670 billion CFA francs, more than $1 billion, in the tourism, culture and arts sector.
Those funds will go toward refurbishing ancient palaces and building four new museums by 2025: an International Museum of Memory and Slavery in Ouidah, a former slave port; a Museum of the Epics of Amazons and Kings in Abomey; an International Museum of Vodun Culture in Porto Novo; and a Museum of Contemporary Art in Cotonou. The goal is to attract tourists, especially African Americans and Afro-Latinos who share ancestral ties to slavery and might be feeling displaced and disillusioned in their countries.
A nascent trend has seen such members of the African diaspora seek to reconnect with what they refer to as the “motherland,” with Americans in particular moving to African countries to escapethe racism and discrimination they face in the United States. Ghana took advantage of this trend in 2019with its “Year of Return” campaign, which invited the “Global African family” to visit the country and earned its economy $1.9 billion. Benin is hoping for a similar windfall and wider economic prosperity for its people.
Nigeria is similarly ambitious. Momentum has swelled for the return of hundreds of Benin Bronzes—artifacts looted between the 17th and 19th centuries from the Kingdom of Benin—to Nigeria, which now sits on the former kingdom’s lands. It’s been a relentless, decades-long struggle, led by the royal family of the Benin Kingdom, the federal government of Nigeria and the subnational government of Edo state. In 2007, these various stakeholders formed the Benin Dialogue Group, a multilateral body coordinating restitution efforts along with delegates from Western museums.
“The Edo state government and the Benin Dialogue Group have been very successful in keeping the restitution requests on the front burner globally,” said Enotie Ogbebor, a member of the group and an adviser to Edo state’s governor, Godwin Obaseki. “The ongoing archeological activities and development of the Edo Museum of West African Art project is also a great impetus.”
In March, both the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin agreed to return some of the Benin Bronzes in their possession. Last June, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two brass plaques. And beyond these well-known public art institutions, lesser-known museums that were not necessarily in the restitution spotlight, such as the University of Aberdeen and Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, also returned similar artifacts to Nigeria in the past year.
Benin Bronzes are displayed at the Museum for Art and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany, Feb. 14, 2018 (dpa photo by Daniel Bockwoldt).
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” explained George Boyne, Aberdeen’s principal and vice chancellor, in a statement published by the university. The university had acquired a looted sculpture of the head of an Oba, or king, through an auction in 1957.
Not all of these works will be physically returned, however. Although Nigeria has “insisted on unconditional returns,” Ogbebor explained, there are nevertheless plans to “loan” some of these works to Western institutions. Those artifacts would belong to Nigeria formally but remain in the possession of European museums.
In other bad news, the British Museum has remained steadfast in its refusal to return any artifacts, despite allegedly holding the largest collection of Benin Bronzes, most of which were captured during its military’s “punitive expedition” against the kingdom in 1897. Requests and advocacy for returns of the Benin Bronzes had been lodged with the museum even before Nigeria became independent. It has now agreed to “consider” sending the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria as loans.
And that’s not to mention the many artifacts taken during lesser-known military expeditions, many of which reside in brightly lit glass cases in museums or hang in private collections across Europe.
“That is one place I think this conversation will go next,” Hicks said. “There wasn’t just one expedition; there were scores.” Looting, after all, was a “military tactic,” he added, “aimed at cultural dispossession, seeking to destroy sovereignty, seeking to destroy traditional religion.” In that way, European museums were not just indirect beneficiaries of looting, but “used as weapons” in colonial conquest.
The Civil Society Campaign
Where Nigeria and Benin have seen governments take the lead in restitution negotiations, Ethiopia has taken a different approach, leaning instead on the initiative of private foundations, diplomats and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
“The way we see it, it’s incredibly important for cultural organizations with no political agenda to work as unifiers between cultures and countries and political systems. It’s for us as NGOs to muster attention and push the [restitution] initiative forward,” said Tahir Shah, founder of the Scheherazade Foundation, a British nonprofit that has been actively involved in efforts to return Ethiopian artifacts to the Ethiopian government.
Shah’s foundation has rallied British legislators, museum stakeholders and legal experts to the cause, and in 2021 helped to identify and buy back sacred objects taken during the 1868 invasion of Abyssinia—present-day Ethiopia—by British forces, also known as the Battle of Maqdala.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, has been at the vanguard of efforts to return “unspeakably sacred” tabots—replica tablets bearing the 10 Commandments—that were also taken during the battle of Maqdala before ending up at the British Museum. Tabots are “believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth” and are so sacred they cannot be displayed or seen by the public; photographed, sketched or studied; or even seen by British Museum staff.
For some time, the church, the government and the Scheherazade Foundation have been keeping pressure on different relevant levers of the U.K. government and heritage sector. On March 30, George Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury, invited the House of Lords, of which he is a member, to debate whether the British Museum should return the tabots. During the ensuing debates, John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, supported Carey’s motion. Pointing out that the objects “relate to a living faith,” he asked if they should not “therefore be returned to those who understand them to be holy and will cherish them as such.”
Ultimately though, the final decision lies with the trustees of the British Museum, who are accountable to parliament for governance of the collection’s affairs, but operate independently of it. And so far, they haven’t blinked. Reportedly, the trustees are nervous that releasing the tabots would set a precedent for other returns.
Elsewhere on the African continent, nongovernmental local actors are not necessarily working with national governments, as in the Scheherazade Foundation’s case, but are playing important roles in raising awareness and empowering communities to make their own restitution claims.
The Tanzania-based Pan African Lawyers Union, for instance, is currently in the process of identifying the existing legal frameworks governing the restitution and repatriation of African art, under both domestic and regional law.
Then there’s Open Restitution Africa, which collects and shares information on policy changes, heritage knowledge and the status of pending or proposed returns, knowledge that otherwise isn’t necessarily mainstream. This helps African stakeholders “observe objective trends, shifts and impacts” so they can learn from others’ successes and mistakes. The platform also centers African ideas and scholarship on what restitution should look like going forward, which are often sidelined in multilateral forums and debates.
European museums were not just indirect beneficiaries of looting, but used it “as weapons” in colonial conquest.
The work of these organizations is being supported by a $15 million initiative by the Open Society Foundations to support broad repatriation and restitution efforts by local organizations and national actors.
Although many countries are pursuing restitution, “none of these projects are speaking to one another—none of them are connected,” explained Veronika Chatelain, acting program officer for art and culture at the Open Society Foundations. “We see ourselves as the connector role, bringing together stakeholders.”
One of the Sarr-Savoy report’s most explicit recommendations was that Western museums offer greater transparency into the contents of their collections, so that members of the public can identify and claim artifacts for return, if they so wish. Transparency was also meant to create opportunities for collaboration with African academics and curators to reframe the context in which the works are displayed and to provide more accurate information on how they came to be in these museums.
This has not really taken off. Instead, transparency has been used as a pretext by museums to delay or obscure negotiations on the return of artefacts.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, because the neglect of these collections was always a part of the violence,” Hicks said. Seemingly benign or passive behavior, like “hiding object stories, only having a tiny number of them on display, [and] not being transparent over the conservation standards,” are part and parcel of the systemic erasure that Hicks said has long been the norm in museum practice.
True restitution, he continued, would mean going beyond the physical return of artifacts to deepen knowledge about these African collections among Africans and Europeans alike. According to Savoy, Europeans understand that it was “wrong” for these artifacts to have been taken by military conquest, but have yet to acknowledge that many were religious objects taken from people of faith, or that others were purchased by leveraging significant power imbalances and unfair terms of exchange. There is a “psychological blockage,” Savoy says, to understanding that actions like these are also violent.
In African countries, too, restitution is often seen as an elitist concern, even though many of the artifacts in question were made by working-class Africans and used in everyday life. They are an indelible part of African cultural history.
“There is a need to really popularize [restitution] and ensure that communities take ownership. Otherwise, [restitution efforts] will remain at the state level,” said Ibrahima Niang, a Dakar-based poet and advocacy manager at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
Some local organizations have been working to do just that. Nigeria’s African Artists Foundation, for instance, launched a program during the 2020 Lagos Photo Festival inviting the public to photograph and share objects in their homes that they feel are sacred and worth sharing with their communities. The project, which aimed to demonstrate the relevance of restitution to the general public, triggered a deluge of engagement and momentarily turned restitution into a mainstream topic of conversation, outside of the silos of academic and political debate.
Governments have done their part, too. After Abimbola’s press conference in February, Benin’s government inundated its citizens with news of the Presidential Palace exhibition. From Ouidah to Kandi, you couldn’t look at a billboard, turn on the radio or open a newspaper without coming across an announcement that the gates of the royal Palace of Abomey and Sossa Dede’s life-size, anthropo-zoomorphic statues of past Benin kings Glele and Behanzin—portrayed as a lion and a shark, respectively—were on their way back to the country.
Since the exhibition finally opened in late February, more than 33,000 people have visited the artifacts, including students, civil servants, Vodun priests, Beninese royals—and me. It is an impeccably curated collection, deftly tracing a line through Benin’s artistic ancestry, with the contemporary art displayed alongside the recovered artifacts, including pieces by Julien Sinzogan and Senami Donoumassou, echoing the mystique and majesty of the ancient works. Exhibition guides had their hands full with animated visitors hungry to know more.
This is exactly the reaction Abimbola had hoped for, and it offers proof-of-concept that should encourage Benin’s government to continue investing in heritage development.
“People are happy to see what they could not see for 100 years,” said Abibou Philibert, a radio host from Cotonou who was visiting the exhibition. “It will change things.”
Ayodeji Rotinwa is a writer, reporter and editor that covers the intersection of visual art, culture and social issues across West Africa. He has also reported from Morocco, Brazil, South Africa, the United States, Colombia and Germany, and has been published in The New York Times, The Continent, Guardian Nigeria, Financial Times, Art Forum and National Geographic, among others. He is currently developing a media product for African visual artists.