Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

African Art in a Global Society

This past year, the Insitute of African Studies has been engaging with the question of African art in a global society with the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies and faculty at Sciences Po. Last fall, we were able to host an international conference on the restitution debate that was funded by the Mellon Foiundation and the FACE Foundation for French-American Cultural Exchange in Education and the Arts. This conference will soon be followed up with a viritual roundtable on recent events around the legal aspects of restitution. Below, Victoria Ebin reports on the 2019 conference, The Restitution Debate. To watch the conference, please follow this link


The Institute of African Studies (IAS) hosted a conference on the restitution of African art from October 22-24, 2019, with the support of the Italian Academy, the Department of Art History and Archaeology, the Maison Française, Barnard College’s Department of Art History, and with funding from the Mellon Foundation.

The conference was organized by the IAS director and professor of philosophy, Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Zoë Strother, professor of art history at Columbia University, who had initially suggested the idea for the conference.

The conference was part of an on-going discussion that had been initiated by President Emmanuel Macron’s call in October 2017 for the return of African art in French museums within five years. The organizers invited the authors of the report, Bénédicte Savoy, a professor of art history at the Technical University of Berlin and the College de France, and Felwine Sarr, an economist at the University of Saint Louis in Senegal, and academics and museum professionals from Africa, France and the US. 

The objective of the Sarr-Savoy report was to explore in detail how Macron’s call for restitution would be implemented and to make recommendations. It was based on many months of research, travel to museums in Africa and France, and interviews with scholars and museum professionals. The report appeared in 2018 and galvanized the African art world, provoking a mixture of praise and relief that concrete plans were now being put in place as well as criticism and trepidation.

During the year since it had appeared, the topic of restitution had expanded from an initially narrow audience to front-page stories in newspapers in Europe, the USA and Africa. News of the conference attracted a great deal of interest and instead of an anticipated audience of a 100 or so, over 400 people had tried to register.

The conference was opened by David Freedberg, professor of art history at Columbia and director of the Italian Academy. He spoke about the Italian Academy’s Observatory for Cultural Heritage and its involvement in issues of restitution.  Souleymane Bachir Diagne welcomed the audience and underlined the authors’ broad view of the potential implications of restitution in the title of the report:  “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics.” It raises the possibility, he said, of a transformation that “could be created by these very African artifacts when the question of their repatriation is treated in a spirit of justice.”   

As noted by its critics, he said the report has been occasionally portrayed as an aggressive attack on museums in the North that would lead to the disappearance of their collections. In his view, such reactions followed a line of thought that reflected colonial language, as though equating the North, the location of universality, as the appropriate place for African objects imbued with this same universality.

A stock reaction to the report, he noted, is that museums in Africa are not prepared to house the objects, and a general assumption that nothing would be done to prepare for their return, as though unpreparedness was an essential state of Africa. Instead, he suggested accepting that restitution is the right thing to do and then working on the conditions that would make it possible.

The authors of the report opened the day-long discussions. Felwine Sarr said that it can no longer be acceptable for these objects to be seen only by people living in Europe and the US.  “Everyone knows African art inspires Europeans and Westerners. Young Africans need to get inspired by it, too.”

He singled out young people specifically, saying they need to understand the past in order to create a future. Citing Karima Lazali, a psychoanalyst who wrote on the scars left by colonial trauma, he said, the impact of this violence is especially damaging for those who have not directly experienced it.

The need for restitution as part of a process to give African young people a sense of the past and the means to create a future was repeated among other presenters from Africa. The director of the National Museum of Mali, Daouda Keita, said that removal of their heritage was part and parcel of the destruction of these societies. Objects now in Western museums should be returned to Africa and be available to new generations for whom a break with the past has meant losing a sense of direction and identity.  

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, curator of African art at MOMA, also talked about the importance for young people to see objects associated with their heritage and referred to the mythical Sankofa bird among the Akan of Ghana. With its feet facing forward and its head turned backwards, it illustrates a proverb about the importance of looking back to the past for knowledge and bringing it into the present in order to progress.

After Sarr‘s presentation, he was asked about reparations and replied that such an emotional impact cannot be quantified.  If money is paid, it is not sufficient to provide closure. It is the relationship itself that has to be repaired.

Bénédicte Savoy described visiting the palace in Abomey in Benin during their research trip to Africa and being struck by its emptiness. It had been looted by French troops in 1892 and now many of the objects are in European collections, especially at the Musee du Quai Branly. She contrasted the echoing rooms of the palace with the abundance of objects at the MQB. In their report, Sarr and Savoy call for the return of objects to Abomey as the first step in their recommendations. .

The emptiness of the palace was also evoked by Marie-Cecile Zinsou, the founder and director of the Zinsou Foundation in Benin. She said records from the 18th century refer to displays of these objects, accompanied by narratives about the royal lineage of Abomey as an essential source of historical knowledge for the people of the kingdom. With the loss of the objects, Zinsou said that people’s sense of history and identity had disappeared.  On the day of the conference, she sent a message out on social media to ask if those in Benin felt they knew their own history and 80 percent said no.

Savoy referred to a double amnesia in her presentation. Firstly, there is an amnesia in Europe and the US about the history of how African objects came to be there and not in Africa, and, secondly, there’s the amnesia that has erased the memory of earlier calls for restitution, which took place from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Led by two eminent Africans, this campaign for the return of African art almost succeeded.

It was launched by Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the Senegalese head of UNESCO, and Professor Ekpo Eyo, the director of the Federal Department of Antiquities in Nigeria and also an archaeologist who brought to light many of the Nigerian terracotta figures now considered masterpieces of African art.

Their efforts initially brought results. For a period of several years, international meetings were held to discuss procedures for restitution;  claim forms were created for use by African museums, and as Savoy showed, the media paid attention. TV talk shows in France and Britain gathered experts to discuss the question. In 1984, West Germany agreed to return objects to former German colonies and the director of the Louvre also backed the proposal. Then there was a sudden reversal. 

Savoy traced the beginning of the back-pedaling and noted an ominous phrase in the German press -- the “specter of restitution.” Museums in Germany then organized an opposition, which Savoy spoke about, since some of its features still linger.  The strategy recommended replacing the word “transfer” for “restitution or return” since the latter implies the object belonged somewhere else. They also warned against making restitution into an emotional issue rather than a legal one. Finally, museums should avoid making inventories, which are essential for tracing objects. The Sarr-Savoy report turned this advice on its head: they insist on the term “restitution;” their appeal is on moral and emotional grounds, and transparency is paramount. 

Even before this period, the question of restitution was in the air in the 1920s, according to Pap Ndiaye, professor of history at l’Institut d’études politiques, though it was never so clearly articulated as by Eyo and M’Bow. Ndiaye examined what he called the “proto-history of restitution,” when leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance were in Europe and, along with intellectuals and artists from the African diaspora, began to question why African objects that had such a powerful influence on European artists were not in Africa.

Through writings from the time, including reviews, such as Presence Africaine, Ndiaye traced this questioning about the location of African art.  He notes references to Lenin’s “stolen goods of imperialism” that would have to be given back one day. Among writers from the African diaspora, Ndiaye said the dream of a return to Africa took hold. Langston Hughes and later writers continued to question the presence of African objects in Europe, though clear demands for restitution were never made.  

With Macron’s announcement and the Sarr-Savoy report, restitution is at the center of debates in  museums and galleries, but Ciraj Rassool, professor of history at the University of the Western Cape, took care to clarify all that restitution should imply. He said that restitution is a process, not just an event or series of events; it is part of decolonization and involves re-thinking the concept of an ethnographic museum.

He spoke about the need for an epistemic change in ethnographic museums and said that museums today need to reflect the societies in which they are located; for South Africa, in particular, that means creating museums that reflect a post-apartheid society. In another context, Hamady Bocoum, the director of the Musee des civilisations noires, he’s not interested in having an ethnographic museum—it’s for the study of the “other.”

Rassool described the historical approach taken by a museum in South Africa and museums on the Mall in Washington DC. In contrast, he pointed to museums in Germany and their view of an ahistorical Africa, a view that underlies the organization of their exhibits and storerooms and reflects European preoccupations of the time, not the societies from which the collections were taken. In illustration, he pointed out that human remains and objects from the same group in South Africa were housed in separate institutions in Germany. Upon their return to South Africa, these collections would be brought together and “rehumanized” and seen as a whole. 

Part of the epistemic change in the definition and operating of museums in South Africa calls for community involvement, not just an audience composed of an urban intellectual elite. As Nzewi noted in his presentation too, communities need to be involved in the call for restitution. Perhaps with the current growth in the number of regional and community museums, this will change, especially if museums make more of an effort to involve their potential audiences.

Rassool said that the role of African museum professionals needs to be strengthened and they should be on an equal footing with their counterparts in European museums, not in relations of dependency. For this to happen, they need training and -- if restitution claims are to advance-- the information and inventories necessary to identify objects and make claims.

The themes of dependency and the precariousness of African museums were underlined in the presentation by Erica Jones, curator at the Fowler Museum, in her presentation on the Bamenda Provincial Museum in Cameroon. From its beginnings as a project of a colonial administrator in the 1950s to its demise 40 years later, its survival depended on random factors, from the serendipitous support of a high-level politician to its location on council land, in contrast to other small museums in the region whose association with a local kingdom could occasionally deter visitors. For some time, the museum could count on a degree of community involvement--people sold their objects there, it was a regular stop on school visits and attracted tourists and researchers. It also fulfilled the important role of controlling the flow of objects outside the country by requiring exit permits for objects taken outside of the country. But eventually the museum closed because its building was needed for a library, and its collections were scattered.

An important element in restitution mentioned in the Sarr-Savoy report and by Rassool is the question of the “translation” of an object from one place to another -- from Africa to a European museum and then back to Africa. Is it possible to un-do colonial categories and meanings when an object is returned to Africa?  The report says these objects become “semiophores,” objects as carriers of new meaning. Nzewi gave the example of the return of the Axum Obelisk from Rome in 2008 where it had been since 1935. During its time there, it had acquired various meanings and now upon its return to Ethiopia, it is called the Rome Obelisk and “mediates between Ethiopia’s past, present and global world.”

Some African museums directors have already had experience with returns of their objects. The director of the National Museum of Mali, Daouda Keita, has been the beneficiary of a few well-publicized restitutions. Former president Jacques Chirac returned a terracotta ram that had been given to him, but was later discovered to have been looted from an archaeological site. In another instance, two carved figures stolen from a Dogon village were traced to a Paris gallery. With help from art crime officials, they were returned to the village site where Keita said they were “sacralized” before being placed in their former sanctuary. Sarr had referred to this same process as a returned object’s symbolic reintegration back to the society where it had originated. 

Keita also gave examples of new forms of partnerships his museum has developed with institutions in Germany. These new ties came about thanks to a joint project on the collections made by Leo Frobenius in the early 1900s, which were then scattered among different museums in Germany. A student from the University of Hamburg worked with Mali museum staff on the project. Working in parallel, researchers and museum staff in Germany and Mali also collaborated to document the objects in their collections and helped create a more comprehensive view of the scope and context of the original collection.

Such collaborations could help silence those who, as mentioned by Nzewi, predict that the return of African objects will spell the end of research for African art historians in Europe and the US. While the center of gravity may shift away from their countries, the sharing of research interests and an appreciation of African objects in general will be spread more equally. As Diagne said, we need a decentralized world, one without a center and periphery.

The founder of the Zinsou Foundation can attest to the interest in museums among African audiences. She created the foundation as an exhibition space in Cotonou in 2005 and established a museum for contemporary African art in Ouidah in 2013. Since then, they have had over six million visitors and created over 30 exhibitions. She said her experiences challenge the view that people in Africa don’t go to museums. “If museums exist, people will visit them,” she said.

Her focus now is on acquiring contemporary African art in the hope that in the future Africans will not be in the same situation as now when they are asking foreign governments for the return of their art. 

To draw inspiration from examples of restitution elsewhere, Strother proposed examining a law that the federal government passed in 1990 about the return of Native American objects and remains, known as NAGRPA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Strother referred to a paper by Enid Schildkrout, Emerita Curator of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. The paper queries, “Does Africa Have Anything to Learn from NAGPRA?”  Strother showed that indeed it does.

NAGPRA requires “institutions receiving federal funding to inventory their collections and inform Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian and Native Alaskan organizations of objects or collections that might be eligible for repatriation.”  As part of her research, Strother interviewed people working on NAGPRA and their accounts provide useful signposts for navigating potential sticking points in the restitution of African objects. For example, according to NAGPRA, claims are not time-limited and they can be reopened when there is new evidence. It also requires that Native Americans involved in restitution cases are allowed to examine the storerooms, opening the way for discussions and relationships with museum staff.

The core of Strother’s conclusion lies in its title, which is “Listening.” She said that museum professionals should pay more attention to what people say about the return of their objects. As those working on NAGPRA told her, it is impossible to generalize about people’s reactions to offers of restitution. Not everyone wants all their objects back and some Native American and African groups said they wanted only a portion returned or proposed alternatives that better suited themselves and the museums. She was told that people often did not reply to letters about repatriation. In conclusion, Strother said museum professionals who don’t listen and automatically refuse to return objects or even allow for discussions may needlessly raise hackles.

During the afternoon discussions, Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, said that restitution is about more than just the return of colonial-era and looted objects, though that is one aspect of the process of restitution. According to Kreamer, the process of restitution should also address the sharing of power and equity at all levels, which, in the past, has excluded the very organizations and communities in Africa that are responsible for protecting and educating people about their cultural heritage. In further conversations, she said that sustainable funding is essential so that African colleagues can initiate and sustain calls for restitution. She also noted that a consortium of institutions in Africa and elsewhere could coordinate their activities and look for funding to launch the process of restitution and also reinforce the capacities of African institutions.

In conclusion to the conference, Paulin Hountondji from the National University of Benin took a provocative stand and said he questioned if people in Africa really cared about the return of their objects. He said the reaction of many could be summed up as “Je m’en foutism,” or I don’t care. He raised the question of who should receive the objects and wondered if ordinary people are asking for their return.

Sarr responded by saying that people need to be made aware of their loss. The amnesia that was the subject of much of their report means that most people do not even know they have lost something, much less what it is and the circumstances in which it occurred. He described the reactions of the many people he and Savoy spoke to while doing the research for the report—young people in Senegal, others in Lesotho and Botswana. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they were told that many people were asking for the return of objects but didn’t know the correct procedures.

Keita said people write the Mali museum saying objects were taken from their families and they want them back. He also said that people are so eager for the return of objects that they criticize the Sarr-Savoy report because it asks for the return of too few objects.
According to Zinsou, when she did an exhibition of objects from Abomey that were on loan from the Musée du Quai Branly, over 275,000 visitors came to see the objects during a three-month period. They reacted with dismay upon learning that the objects would be returned to France.

While Hountondji’s summing-up momentarily surprised the audience, it had the effect of reinvigorating them and people brought up examples to contradict his gloomy assessment. They responded with accounts that showed the topic of restitution of African art has taken on a new dimension with Macron’s speech and the Sarr-Savoy report. It now has concrete support from across a much wider spectrum than in the past.   

Victoria Ebin