Emmanuel Macron / Abaca Press – Alamy Stock Photo
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, was told in October that artefacts of African heritage held in the country should be returned to their homelands. During a series of round table talks held in the southern French city of Montpellier, the French President was informed that many items held in the collections of French museums should be given back. The discussions centred on the presence of African art in French galleries and other historic artefacts that had been taken from Africa during the country’s long colonial presence there. When Macron attended the Africa-France summit towards the end of the conference in person he gave no personal assurance that the items would be returned to Africa. However, he did say that France hoped to ‘move forward’ so that it could recover from ‘the wounds of the past’ and then ‘look towards a new future’.
These words may have reassured some that France is committed to a reevaluation of its collections of African art but some of those present at the talks wanted more concrete proposals to be made. One academic who attended the conference, Koyo Kouoh, a curator and director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, spoke to the President directly. “Africa has been in forced into a relationship with France for at least five centuries years,” he told Mr Macron. Kouoh, who is originally from Cameroon – a country that was occupied at various times by Germany, France and Great Britain – informed the French head of state that he thought holding talks on the subject of art restitution was something to be welcomed. Nevertheless, he told Mr Macron that the timing of such discussions in respect of African-French relations was being held very late in the day and was something that should have been addressed years ago.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Cameroonian-born curator Koyo Kouoh / REUTERS – Alamy Stock Photo
A number of other panellists at the talks echoed Mr Kououh’s sentiments. Those representing museums and galleries in France were also in attendance including one of the country’s leading ethnographic museums, Quai Branly, which is in Paris and holds over 370,000 artefacts, many taken from African countries while France was an imperial force in the continent. However, much of the criticism that French cultural institutions came in for during the discussions were not directed at them by African representatives. Instead, these tended to come from French citizens themselves, predominantly those of the African diaspora who live and work in France today.
Among those criticising France’s historic role in appropriating African art for its various collection was a youth group called Alter-Natives from Paris. This organisation has a track record of questioning the cultural heritage of artworks and artefacts in French museums. According to Mohamed Loum Gning, a teenager who spoke on the group’s behalf, museums ought to be more inclusive. While addressing the audience at the conference, he pointed out that four-fifths of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently to be found outside of the continent, much of it in Europe. “I cannot see any of the objects [created by]… my people,” he said. Alter-Natives also pointed out that many of the items that come from, or that originated in, Africa were not studied as part of the country’s national curriculum so they were often left unappreciated and misunderstood.
Another speaker, Zoul Iscandar, who is originally from the Central African Republic, said that African history had been scattered as a result of colonialism. Iscandar argued that there was a tendency in the French education system to think that Western culture was and remains of greater relevance than African culture. According to him, this pervades French culture. “I want to see African artefacts returned to Africa,” he said, “so, the youth on the continent can be proud of what their history says about them.”
The criticisms of France’s historical role in appropriating African art was not confined to French youths, however. Manasseh Agbonlahor, a Nigerian delegate at the conference, said that objects and artworks that remain in the custodianship of European countries do not help to further the discussion or understanding of African history. Agbonlahor, who is from the ancient city of Benin, which is very well known for its cultural heritage, said that when an area is conquered, it is always the conqueror who gets to write the history of the territory in question. Arguing that this is precisely what had happened in the case of Benin, he said that the world had been handed down a false narrative of what Africa really is. “It is crucial that the French government starts to alter the current narrative on Africa,” he said.
These discussions are part of a wider set of talks between African cultural historians and curators and their contemporaries in the West. Although there are some high-profile cases where items have been restored to their former homelands, many artworks and historic artefacts remain in the possession of European museums. Whether more will be returned remains to be seen. However, President Macron has recently announced that France would give back the so-called ‘Treasures of Béhanzin’. These artworks were notoriously looted from Benin in 1892 during the colonial wars there.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.