Arts + Culture
Heads of a Royal ancestor, arts of the Kingdom of Benin of the end of the 18th century are on display on May 18, 2018 at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac in Paris. Benin is demanding restitution of its national treasures that had been taken from the former French colony Dahomey (current Benin) to France and currently are on display at Quai Branly, a museum featuring the indigenous art and cultures of Africa. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Bringing African Artifacts Home

What would it take to finally return the looted treasures of the African continent to their rightful owners? We spoke with curator Niama Safia Sandy about the future of African art repatriation.

Last November, France's President Emmanuel Macron oversaw the return of 26 artifacts that were stolen during France's colonial era back to their home in Benin. The move came after years of petitioning on the part of African governments and the commissioning of a report by the French leader that highlighted the need for full restitution to take place between European colonial powers and their former African colonies.

Macron's actions—while they could be read as performative measures, intended to serve France's economic interests on the continent by painting him in a positive light—was considered a constructive solution to the problem of art repatriation. It's a simple concept: a former colonial power admitted and apologized for stealing valuable cultural relics in the past, and then gave them back.

The process of art repatriation should be that simple, but in reality, it isn't. While efforts have been made to return these items to their rightful African owners—Germany recently returned a looted 15th century stone cross to Namibia—the majority of African cultural relics still live in museums far outside of the continent's borders. After all, France only returned 26 items, while the Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone houses 70,000 African objects, according to The New York Times. And apologies, when they do come, hardly suffice.

Case-by-case instances of restitution hardly seem like a solution to the larger issue. Even with some governments agreeing to return items, several major Western institutions have yet to fully commit, instead suggesting that items be handed back temporarily, as was the case in April of last year when London's Victoria and Albert Museum offered to return remains stolen from the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II back to Ethiopia on loan.

The pressure on European governments is only intensifying as more African countries demand that their historic treasures be returned, and public outcry—urging Western countries to simply give back what they stole—escalates.

As we've discovered, the process of giving things back isn't as simple as it should be, which raises questions about how to improve the process. As we go forward, what does an effective, foolproof process of art repatriation look like? Is this even possible to achieve? We reached out to Brooklyn-based cultural anthropologist, writer and curator of the upcoming Meditated Meditations exhibit at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery Niama Safia Sandy, to answer some of these questions. She spoke about current events in the movement towards full art repatriation, as well as the future of African art restitution. Read her responses below.

King Ghezo's throne of Abomey in Benin dating back to early 19th century is pictured, on June 18, 2018 at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac in Paris. Photo by GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

What do you think an ideal process for art repatriation would look like?

I can't speak to an "ideal process" because of the specific peculiarities of how each object was procured, but I will say that however the process happens, it should entail a full reckoning with and reconciliation of how the object made its way into a Western collection. Restitution should not just be about returning an object, but also supporting a discourse that acknowledges the role of colonization, power and the history of how it happened, while also building a system of equity such that global cultural heritage items can be shared by all humanity in a manner that does not prevent indigenous peoples of the world from having control over their cultural artifacts and assets. In an ideal world, a fund could be developed to support existing institutions, and alternately create new ones on the African Continent that can place these objects back into the hands, minds and hearts of African people.

We've also heard about the idea of "temporary repatriation" or giving the items back "on loan," should African institutions cooperate with Western institutions who are suggesting this form of "repatriation"?

I don't believe offering "temporary repatriation" is a great solution to this issue. It would be akin to treating symptoms and not the underlying illness. In the long run, doing that may cause more harm than good.

France's president Emmanuel Macron, for example, oversaw the restitution of 26 artifacts back to Benin and has expressed plans to return historical treasures back to the continent. Does this sound like a foolproof process and would you consider him an example for other Western leaders?

I certainly commend President Macron not just for taking on the issue but also sending the clear message that it was a priority issue by appointing serious scholars, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, to create the report. If indigenous people of Africa request the return of heritage artifacts in cases where they are proven to be ill-gotten by a Western museum, I don't see a reasonable argument which could be made against that. Ultimately, very few things in this life are totally foolproof—there will always be competing interests, especially with regard to objects that have, at this point, been in European collections for over a century. Unfortunately, people will often gravitate toward unfairness because it is what they have always done rather than because it is right.

"I can't help but see irony in European institutions fighting to hold on to the very history it has claimed we do not have."

One excuse that is used for the delay in returning items is that there isn't infrastructure or proper facilities on the continent to house them. What are your thoughts on this?

There are many institutions all over Africa that have the capability to preserve, and—more importantly—teach with these objects. A few examples I can think of which all lent objects to the current iteration of the traveling exhibition Caravans of Gold on view at the Block Museum at Northwestern University are the Nigerian National Museum, the National Museum of Mali and others. There is also the National Museum of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, the newly opened Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar—there are literally over a dozen museums in Morocco alone.

It's a sort of circular, "chicken vs. the egg" sort of argument to make. What came first? Even if it were entirely true that there is no infrastructure to support high quality museums in Africa—how did that come to be so? Again, we do not get to pick and choose what parts of history we treat with fidelity. So many governments are still recovering from the quagmire that is the postcolonial moment. The roughly 50-60 years of independence in many parts of the continent is a drop in the bucket especially in consideration of all that has transpired in that time. We can talk about contending with structural adjustments plans, civil war, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, climate change, and more.

To persevere through these things when you are essentially just beginning to find your own footing is miraculous. The fact is, the myth of the underdevelopment of the African continent has long been perpetuated for the continuation of unchecked exploitation of the land, its people and resources. Full stop. There is a quote from the German philosopher Hegel that I like to reference. He wrote that Africa is "no historical part of the world," with "no movement or development to exhibit." I can't help but see irony in European institutions fighting to hold on to the very history it was claimed we do not have.

What is being done on the part of African governments to ensure the return of items?

There have been investments in protecting cultural patrimony and building mechanisms that support contemporary art in many African countries. As I shared before, the Nigerian, Malian, Senegalese governments have all thrown financial support behind maintaining cultural patrimony. Also, I know for sure there are citizens who have formed restitution committees that have fought for years to restore cultural heritage artifacts—the Benin Dialogue Group, The Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (AFROMET) are two that immediately come to mind. I don't know if I can say that there isn't enough being done.

It's good to keep in mind that there isn't necessarily a precedent for any of this. It's a marathon and will require a prolonged effort on multiple levels of engagement and action.

Let's say that all the stolen items were to be returned, does the flow of African art into the Western world just stop? Should it stop? How do we ensure that the inevitable exchange between the continent and the Western world is fair and equitable?

I don't think it should or will cease. Provenance is one of the most important facets of the situation. If it can be proved that an item was procured legally from people who were actually authorized to make a sale or bequest, then we should be able to continue sharing these objects with the world. This applies to African patrimony, but also objects from all over the world.


Mexican Government Returns Stolen Bronze Sculpture to Nigeria

Mexican customs officials thwarted an attempt to smuggle the ancient Yoruba sculpture into the country.

The Mexican government has recently returned a stolen bronze sculpture to Nigeria according to Vanguard.

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The ornate gilded copper headgear, which features images of Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles, was unearthed after refugee-turned-Dutch-citizen Sirak Asfaw contacted Dutch 'art detective' Arthur Brand. (Photo by Jan HENNOP/AFP) (Photo by JAN HENNOP/AFP via Getty Images)

A Stolen 18th Century Ethiopian Crown Has Been Returned from The Netherlands

The crown had been hidden in a Dutch apartment for 20 years.

In one of the latest developments around art repatriation, a stolen 18th century Ethiopian crown that was discovered decades ago in the Netherlands, has been sent back home.

Sirak Asfaw, an Ethiopian who fled to The Netherlands in the '70s, first found the relic in the suitcase of a visitor in 1998, reports BBC Africa. He reportedly protected the item for two decades, before informing Dutch "art crime investigator" Arthur Brand and authorities about his discovery last year.

The crown is one of only 20 in existence and features intricate Biblical depictions of Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. Historians believe it was given to the church by the warlord Welde Sellase several centuries ago.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."

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