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Ongoing Art Restitution Through: ‘Africa’s Struggle for Its Art’

Art Sleuth By Jean Bundy

Ekpo Eyo, Nigerian Archaelogist at Houston Museum of Fine Arts 1970s-80s.
Ekpo Eyo, Nigerian Archaelogist at Houston Museum of Fine Arts 1970s-80s.

Selfishness fetches up in the art world too. The book: ‘Africa’s Struggle for Its Art’ by

Bénédicte Savoy details the sparring between African countries, 1965-1985, who wanted their

art returned, and Western institutions which rationalized keeping the works. Savoy writes,

“Almost all of Africa’s ancient artistic heritage is now preserved in European countries: in the

United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Vienna, and Belgium. It is difficult to

convey the magnitude of this reality in numbers, to physically experience the space it

occupies, to imagine the weight it represents, the forces it took to move these pieces (vi).” In

1960, seventeen African countries achieved independence. The Post-war fight to retrieve art

began around 1956 at the ‘First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists’ attended by

James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon (4). Savoy explains, “Restitution contributes to casting off

an outdated, hierarchical structure…and to defining a mutual relationship in accordance with

post-racial coexistence (141).”

Returning cultural property has become a worldwide appeal, including in Alaska. Wells Fargo

recently gave its Native art to museums throughout the state (ADN, Hughes 04/28/22). Emily

Moore writes in ‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’, “In 1961, the Forest Service formally transferred

supervision of the all the totem parks associated with Native communities to Native control

(Moore 182).” The Alutiiq Museum has a sharing/partnership with Musée-Boulogne-Sur-Mer,

which acquired masks when Alphonse Pinart traveled to Kodiak, 1875.

The book: ‘Africa’s Struggle for Its Art’ documents the endeavoring to retrieve art—stolen or

bought for a pittance. African museums have requested exhibition borrowing hoping for

permanent loaning. In 1963, the British Museum Act of 1902 was amended by Parliament

—”the museum was prohibited, almost without exception, of disposing of its holdings (6).”

Hope sometimes springs, “in 22 March 2021, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin administration

suggested--in what appeared a well-calculated leak--that Germany was committed to returning

the famous Benin bronzes looted by the British army from Benin City, Nigeria, and acquired in

large numbers by German museums around 1900 (viii).”

In 1971, London’s Africa Centre premiered ‘You Hide Me’ by Nii Kwate Owoo, revealing the

vast collection of African art in the British Museum, much of which has never been seen (11).

Of note: Owoo can be found on YouTube. His remastered film won Best Short Documentary at

the Paris Short Film Festival, 2020.

Book Cover from Lost Heritage Symposium, London, 1981.
Book Cover from Lost Heritage Symposium, London, 1981.

Germany, like the UK, holds vast

collections of African art because of their

Nineteenth-Century colonial presence in

Africa. In 1972, Hans-Georg Wormit,

President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage

Foundation, a former SS member, insisted,

“Any yielding to the, initially,’ moral’,

demands of the developing countries

would…weaken the legal position of all

those museums that possess and

legitimately own artworks from other

countries (23).” German historian Sarah

Van Beurden disagreed, “the older

narrative of the ‘civilizing mission’ in which

the objects were proof of the need for the

transformation of ‘primitive African cultures’

had finally ‘shifted towards a rhetoric or

cultural guardianship’ (27).” In 1978,

Andreas Lommel retired director of

Munich’s Staatliche Museum für

Völkerkunde spoke out, “Museums…

should really not be treasure houses

where trophies are kept from the military campaigns of the colonising past that is forgotten

today (86).”

Rationalizations flourish in this aesthetic tug-of-war. Third World museums have uneducated

and corrupt personnel who can’t preserve and present their own history. Africans can always

make new artifacts, and besides, they don’t really want this stuff back. There would be a threat

to scholarship. Bottom line – we don’t have to give anything back (38, 83).

In 1977, the ‘Pan-African World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac’ 77)’

took place in Lagos with Stevie Wonder performing, shadowed by a controversy concerning

the 16th century Benin Queen Idia Mask. Although Festac used the ivory image as its logo,

the British Museum refused to loan the real deal saying, “Nigerians could regard the object as

‘their own property,’ and therefore neglect to care for it.” The Queen Idia Mask remains at the

British Museum, which had acquired the object when England conquered Benin, 1897 (62).

Stanford University’s Alma Robinson wrote in a Festac catalog ‘African Art in Foreign Hands’

about the lack of support for UNESCO resolutions and the illegal export of antiquities by

dealers, diplomats, airline crews, military experts, and foreign aid professionals (64).

Record Cover from Festac '77.
Record Cover from Festac '77.

In 1982, the ‘UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies’ in Mexico City was attended by

Greece’s Cultural Minister, Melina Mercouri, who had published “Ten Theses on Cultural

Encounters and Cooperation with Third World Countries.” Savoy believes Mercouri’s star

quality appearance “marked the final end of European solidarity against restitution claims from

the ‘Third World’ (122).” Mercouri also addressed returning the Elgin Marbles, displayed at the

British Museum since 1816.

At a 1981 London conference at the Africa Centre, British Museum press officer Jean Rankine

insisted, “The British Museum is a universal museum….the museum is not a mirror of national

identity but a reflection of the universal heritage of man.” Six days later, the BBC released

“Whose Art Is It Anyway?” a documentary collage of restitution interviews and clips (111). In

1983, Labour member of Parliament, Hugh Jenkins tried to have the 1963 British Museum Act

changed, desiring “greater institutional flexibility in dealing with restitution claims.” Savoy

acknowledged, “The British Museum Act of 1963, still applies today (129).”

According to Savoy, “It was precisely the solidarity of the public with the restitution requests of

the so-called developing countries and the acknowledgment of the uselessness of keeping the

objects in European museum depots that would severely challenge many European museum

administrations (43).” Dorian Batycka writes in 2022, “Amid mounting public pressure, Greece

and the UK have agreed to a new round of talks about a possible return of the Parthenon

Marbles (Artnet 5/18/22).”

Savoy concludes, “But restitution claims from Africa are not a mere footnote in history. The

manner in which European museums dealt with cultural demands from former colonised

countries since their independence has been shameful ….to withhold the cultural heritage of

humanity for the purpose of national self-assertion, is not an option for the future (142).”

Embedded selfishness is easy to justify but difficult to eradicate.

Mini Sleuth: ‘Africa’s Struggle for Its Art’by Bénédicte Savoy and ‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’

by Emily Moore are at Amazon. Thank you, Jodi Smith at Princeton Univ. Press.

Jean Bundy, MFA, Ph.D. is a writer/painter

living in Anchorage. She is a VP at AICA

Int. and serves on Governance for Pictor

Gallery, NYC.


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