Bringing African art home: Beyond a matter of ownership

Dr Yaya Moussa
By Dr Yaya Moussa

The founder and president of Africa Prime, a video on demand service dedicated to celebrating African talent.

Posted on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 14:47

View of a looted artwork from Nigeria, that now resides in a British museum, which is turned into a non-fungible token (NFT), with the project's aim to give part of its sale proceeds to fund young African artists, in this handout image obtained May 23, 2022. Looty Art/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT - RC2JDU9MYIVG

From the Rosetta Stone to Magdala’s Ethiopian Treasures, the Parthenon’s Marbles to the Bust of Nefertiti, there is an endless list of artefacts that can be argued were illegally or unethically taken and put on display around the world far from the cultures that originated the works.

In recent years many African countries have sought the return of cultural artefacts from former colonial powers, but the debate should go beyond just a question of ethical ownership.

Museums and other institutions in the West must take responsibility for their colonial pasts, with ex-colonial powers accepting that the history of decolonisation does not end with political independence. But African countries themselves must also acknowledge their responsibility to ensure the security of important cultural artefacts and that they are accessible and are used to support education and development. To achieve this, there must be an open and sensible dialogue between the former colonial powers and Africa, the latter often still a victim of paternalistic and unbalanced relationships.

Restitution talks

The restitution of colonial-era objects from Western museums to their countries of origin has been a hot topic since the 1960s. But it wasn’t until 2018, with the release of a report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, that the true extent of Africa’s missing artefacts was known. According to their research, up to 90% of known ancient African art is no longer on the continent. To some, refusal to return objects to their countries of origin demonstrates a continuation of colonial attitudes.

However, condemning colonialism is too simplistic. One cannot look back at history through the naïve prism of right and wrong, or turn the past into a morality play.

Whilst it is undeniable that African communities should have access to their own cultural heritage, they should also be able to access the rest of the world’s art, which is why decisions about the return of African artefacts cannot be dictated by the West. Instead, an open dialogue between European and African stakeholders must occur, valuing African perspectives as much as their Western counterparts. Within the continent, cultural heritage can in turn help promote relations between regions, independently from Western influence.

The debate over ownership overlooks the real reason why Africa’s ancient treasures should return to the continent. The absence of historical artefacts leaves a blank space in the history and heritage of many African communities, causing a huge loss to the continent’s economy and society. The repatriation of art would not only attract visitors and create new employment opportunities, but it could also if used wisely revitalise towns and cities and develop new talent.

What is needed

Yet, for repatriation to be of public benefit, there must be adequate investment in museums, both in terms of conservation facilities, sustainable outreach, security measures, and educational programmes.

African institutions often lack the capacity and resources to preserve, research and display items adequately. Whilst recent projects such as the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City pave the way for commendable repatriation, bringing traditional knowledge back to the continent requires research and expertise to be developed and local staff and experts to be trained. Art festivals hosted in Africa and participation in international festivals will also ensure that the international community continues to benefit from African art, and Africa benefits from new soft power.

For artwork to be appreciated in its original intent, where it is exhibited is not determinant. What is determinant instead is where artwork can be culturally and socially beneficial, acknowledging its historical authenticity.

Antique items can transport visitors to ancient Assyria, Greece, or to the Royal Palace of Benin. The value of museums lies in the stimulation of questions, and in the representation of relationships and meaning. The value of art instead is not only material or monetary. Art is educational and inspirational, defining personal and national identities. Beyond questions of ownership, historic artefacts are representative of humanity’s achievements, of the travel and traffic that have shaped the world as we know it today.

For Africa’s treasures to be appreciated worldwide, art history must be developed in Africa with a methodology, a vision and orientation that combines local knowledge with international expertise. African countries should go beyond moral discussions of ownership and engage in mutual invitations, exhibitions, and events, to ensure African art receives the care and attention it deserves.

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