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, when 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.