In a post-colonial world, the issue of colonialism and its consequences may seem to belong to the past, as society has moved on and everyone generally agrees that colonialism was a very dark chapter in world history that should never be repeated again. However, this does not in any way mean that this complex issue has been resolved, as is exemplified by many different matters, including the issue of art restitution.
Since the 1960s many African countries have been advocating the restitution and legal transfer of objects and artifacts that were stolen during colonization and are now displayed in many European museums. However, this request has been mostly ignored by European governments and cultural institutions, who argue that restitution is unnecessary, complicated, and legally challenging.
Many have claimed that the artworks in question would not be safe in these countries, as they lack the infrastructure and resources to safeguard these precious objects. Others have used the “How far back will you go?” argument, underlining that many items in Rome were also taken from somewhere in Greece or Ancient Egypt, thereby normalizing these kinds of actions.
It has been estimated that 90 to 95% of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent. The British Museum in London alone contains about 73’000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, whilst France holds at least 90’000, most of which were stolen during its colonial rule over a big part of this region.
One item in particular that has been at the heart of the restitution debate is the Benin Bronzes, a set of unique plaques in wood and ivory that were looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. These artefacts, which where revered and reserved for ancestral altars, are now a constant reminder of a violent past and a stolen future. There are countless other examples.
Empty words and promises will not solve the issue
Despite French President Macron’s promise in 2017 to “allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage [held in French museums] to Africa”, three years later not much has changed. The situation in many other European countries is not very different, with many actors barely acknowledging the issue.
So why are we still seeing so much resistance in recognizing Europe’s dark colonial past?
Accepting the need of returning African artifacts would reignite the conversation on the many structural problems African countries face today because of colonialism, a topic that still makes many European countries uncomfortable. The many structural and economic disparities between the two continents can in many cases be directly led back to colonialism. By delivering empty promises and general statements on the issue of restitution, they can seem morally correct, whilst everything more or less stays the same.
By denying restitution these institutions are continuing to support a narrative that depicts Europe as more progressive and Africa as less developed, thus indirectly justifying colonization and dehumanizing non-western cultures. In today’s post-colonial context this narrative is no longer acceptable. Africa should be given a right to reclaim and define its cultural heritage, and Europe has an obligation to support this.
Responsibility needs to be taken and art restitution is the first step towards this. Words are not enough – it is time European governments and institutions take concrete action in a crucial step towards turning a page on their troubled relationship with colonial history.