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Black works and white museums

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It is rarely too late to do the right thing when injustices undermine the past, present, and future. Therefore, there is reason to be glad that Emmanuel Macron has understood this in at least one area: that of the thorny and fascinating file of African cultural property, which has been imported to the West throughout history. On the part of the President of the Republic, this is not without ulterior geopolitical motives, in a context in which African France leaves a bitter taste for many Africans – and Russia does not fail to take advantage of it to strengthen its pawns.

But some figures make you dizzy: in French museums alone, nearly 90,000 objects in storage often sleep. Jewelry, statues, Dogon masks, voodoo relics… It’s simple, Almost 90% of all the cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa can be found in European collections.Writing at the request of the Elysee, in 2018, art historian Benedict Savoy summarizes the first report on the subject with Senegalese thinker Floin Sarr. How do you find this normal, fair, and healthy situation?

sequel after announcement

The question is not new. “Give us back Negro art.”Beninese writer Pauline Joachim asked in the 1965 article “Bingo”. Others followed, Zairean President Mobutu, in 1973 before the United Nations, but also Senegalese Amadou Mhtar Mbo, who, while Director-General of UNESCO, had put his finger on the core issue of the case in 1978:

The peoples who fall victim to this secular plunder are sometimes not only deprived of their irreplaceable charms: they are deprived of a memory which would undoubtedly have helped them to know themselves better, and certainly to understand others better. »

Unfortunately, pragmatic arguments came to an extent to explain – and perpetuate – the situation. Beginning with the idea that African masterpieces, because they belong first and foremost to the heritage of humanity as a whole, are better preserved and protected, if not more valuable, in European museums than if they were in the hands of heads of state with little reputation for their integrity, their democratic spirit, or simply their cultural policies.

How France will return its cultural property to African countries

However, brains have evolved. Decolonization continued. After being a taboo subject for decades, the redeeming principle seems to have finally been earned, as this week’s cover story tells us. Since 2018, other countries, such as Belgium, have followed in France’s footsteps and sometimes even surpassed them. Some of the goods have returned to their original lands, such as the twenty-six works that left the Quai-Branly Museum in 2021 for Benin, where 300,000 people have already managed to admire them.

Above all, the second report, which reveals the “Obs” of the main recommendations, has just been written by the former director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez. By proposing nine criteria for a “return”, it should serve as a basis for drafting a framework law at the end of 2023: it will allow Business acquired under illegal or illegitimate circumstances. The Minister of Culture, Rima Abdel-Malik, explains to us that the principle of immutability of the national heritage is not adhered to, so that it can be displayed in their countries of origin. One way, the minister slips, from Remember, Westerners don’t have a monopoly on internationalism..

Rima Abdel Malek on the return of African cultural property: “The path is neither the path of denial nor the path of repentance”

It was time. Because you have to call things by their spade. Obviously, many of these businesses were not bought but monopolized, stolen or plundered. Any one? In what circumstances? To whom should they be returned? Here opens an exciting project, in the articulation of history, law, culture, geopolitics, memory and ethics. And as Martinez’s report may seem more timid than that of Savoy and Saar, it remains to be hoped that real means will be published to allow experts from all countries involved to study the trajectory of every statue, every mask, every cup. At this price also, it will be possible, one day, perhaps, to heal at last the wounds and poisoned wounds of the colonies.

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