Stolen African art: "It's not about emptying French museums"

In their report on the "return of African cultural heritage towards new relational ethics", on Friday, the authors advocated the opening of a path to the return of African works of art. Historian Bénédicte Savoy is split between the Collège de France in Paris, where he is the international president of the "Cultural History of Artistic Heritage in Europe (XVIII-XXe century) and Berlin, where he teaches art history at the Technical University. Felwine Sarr is an economist and teaches at Saint-Louis University in Senegal, but he is also a publisher, musician and writer. In particular, the author of the essay written: Afrotopia (Philippe Rey, 2016). They say for the public how, without prejudice, they began from the history of objects preserved in France to tell the story of the capture of heritage.

Why write a report on the return of African works alone?

Most scientists believe 85 or 90% of African artistic heritage is outside the continent. This is an anomaly on a global scale. No other continent knows this. In Australia, Latin America, Egypt, Greece and Austria there are works that are difficult to see. This exception justifies the rebalancing of African geography in the world. It is not a question of punishing and offering everything else. But African youth have the right to their own heritage. Africans do not have access to the creativity of their ancestors. Reincarnation with this cultural history is also a momentum for the future. African heritage has nurtured the entire European artistic avant-garde – Picasso, as well as surrealists – not to mention all young artists or European designers who can eat in the museum today, they work from here on and beyond.

This report could give African countries ideas and incite new requests for return …

The issue of return is an old story that begins with independence. African requirements are multiple. It is interesting that in the eighties of European societies, they were in the same state as today: we were very close to the return of works, thanks to the perseverance of the new independent state and UNESCO. However, this moment was completely forgotten and today we are "rediscovering" this issue. The report will not "give the idea" to African countries, but has been circulating for a long time. But different requirements in the past have not been heard. This discouraged other countries to deal with procedures.

What does the state have lost its memory for a hundred and fifty years?

We ask the question of leaving the heritage as a weapon of war or dehumanization weapons. In some countries, the memory of losses is still alive because it is linked to the end of the empire or through violent military actions. We have to determine this method of production in museums, cartels. There are amnesia about these issues. From country to country, memory loss is very variable. What does it mean to return items that we have not seen yet? A symbolic redirect is crucial.

We also thought about the issue of compensation for loss. You always start from objects. Some of them are truly more than objects; they are operating entities, holders of energy, beliefs … This world value is often permanently lost, irreversible. This is an incompatible, disproportionate loss. That is why we are thinking about symbolic reparation, which is not necessarily financially measurable, but allows for the establishment of new relations between Africa and Europe, more fair and more respectful.

Are you afraid of controversy?

Of course, we are aware that discussions will probably be difficult for some hardening to appear at the time of extradition. However, we were able to carry out our mission in peace and dialogue. We were worried that this work should be done in a very precise way, not in a controversial way. We did not have prejudices. From the subject and their history, we place the soil in a colonial context, on the system of cultural exploitation, which was added to the system of exploitation of natural resources. This is a scientific work, we have done the work of historians. We do not set ourselves morally but historically on the path of objects. And about the history of symbolic and real violence of this heritage.

Should we not work to ensure that this revenge is followed in France too?

This is not about the emptying of French museums, so there will always be more evidence of this history of heritage capture. But we also need the right service at departures and returns. The history of the creation of these collections must appear in museums at the same time as the work. Nantes or Angoulême Museums have already begun a great deal of work in this field.

Catherine Calvet


Guillaume Lecaplain

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