In an interview, art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr explain why European museums should return African art treasures.
Amid the heated discussion about how to deal with the colonial period, European museums exhibit many items from Africa. But isn’t there a long tradition of cultural plundering, stretching back through human history?
Felwine Sarr: That is true but at the same time I don’t think it is a reason not to interrogate the legitimacy of this kind of action. Our research shows that it was not just looting, it was was an organised system to loot and to control the spiritual resources. That became clear in our historiography. If you want to renew the relationship between European and African nations, we have to heal this narrative history.
You prepared a report for the French president on colonial art in French museums in which you argue for the return of African objects. Why does the colonial debate hinge on cultural heritage rather than the wars and massacres of that era. Aren't discussions about art objects relatively minor in this context?
Sarr: It’s easier to use these objects as a window to address more important questions. In the case of France, people don’t want to talk about the crime or the torture in Algeria. There’s an unwillingness to deeply address colonial violence. But if we say the topic is art, it is easier to approach the subject of relations during the colonial times.
Do you think that the returning African cultural objects would serve as a reparation for other crimes?
Sarr: I don’t think this is about redemption and guilt… We need history, we need to know it and to reflect on it. But most important is: How do we relate to each other now? I don’t think you have to be guilty of the actions of your elders, but you are responsible for how you relate to others today. For me that’s the key question: How do we write history in the present?
Bénédicte Savoy: When we worked on our report, we continually switched between timeframes of past, present and future. And we tried to "sew" them together somehow. I think this is extremely important: to remain agile and to move between times. That's something you should teach young people, that is something I say now, as a teacher.
Can you describe how the handling of the objects of that era is related to the colonial system and the crimes committed back then?
Sarr: When you look more closely to the issue of artefacts, you have the opportunity to address the global history: Why are these artefacts are in Europe? Take, for example, the bonze figures from Dahomey, which became Benin, which are now in museums in France and England. They arrived here in 1892 when a military coup destroyed the Kingdom of Dahomey. The French conquered Dahomey with military violence and later brought the artefacts back to France. The history of artefacts tells the colonialist story. Also, this issue of artefacts reveals the force behind these relationships. It is an entry point to reflect on the global history.
The future Humboldtforum museum in Berlin will also house artefacts from Africa. What is the role of European museums in the debate about the return of cultural objects? For your report, you worked closely with Stéphane Martin, Director of the Musée du Quai Branly. Now he criticises your position on the restitution of cultural items.
Sarr: There are two difficulties in this debate. One is that restitution is necessarily related to the biography of objects, for example, why and when and how they arrived in the Western collections. If you address these questions you are talking about colonial history. Even if you are talking about one moment in time or one specific artefact, the surrounding debate is colonial history. Not everyone deeply interrogates their view of the world. But this debate hinges on what i can call “symbolic capital” on which they build their view of themselves and how they react to others. And you can say: “This symbolic capital is problematic, and probably, these objects, belong to others, and others need them. It is not fair, to have the most important part of their patrimony here - all this happened in a context of colonial asymmetry.” I think this part of history is often not thought about or not told, which explains why we had some violent conservative reactions to our demands.
Savoy: Stéphane Martin from the Musée du Quai Branly was very open and supported us all the time.
Because he wanted to, or because he had to?
Savoy: He was confident that everything would go well. A few days before the publication of the report, he told us: "No, I don't need to see it first." The surprising thing was that we pointed out the connection between the museums and the colonial period. We made that link clearer than anybody in France had ever made it before. We did so in a watertight way, backing it up with statistics, etc. That didn't exist before, that part of history was invisible. It was common knowledge - in France some objects are labelled "donated by General so-and-so", but you don't talk about it, just as you don’t talk about it when a great uncle is gay. The fact that we have started talking about something which is so obvious caused a violent reaction.
Can you explain why some things are factually proven, but are still so difficult to talk about?
Sarr: I think it’s difficult to talk about this issue: there are people that don’t want to face all the implications of colonial history. There are people who say we need to move on. I think people who interrogate the colonial history want to change their way of relating to other nations. Probably some people don’t want to face up to this history, they just want to see the bright side, to enjoy the beautiful artefacts in our collections without disturbing the past. I think it is difficult to face the whole colonial history: it’s more comfortable to rely on one part of history and to minimize or forget the other part. When people go to Africa, they see with their own eyes that the objects aren’t there, they know that is not normal, but they prefer other solutions.
Savoy: And our collections have been legitimized for decades with terms like "rescue" or "documentation". These terms have been two strong pillars of museum legitimacy since the very beginning. For example, there was the Dakar-Djibouti mission, in which the French collected items from Dakar to Djibouti from 1931 to 1933 in order to "come to the rescue". But documents state that items were collected to make money. They wanted to assemble a great collection to compete with Great Britain and Germany. It also says that they wanted to do this ahead of the British and the Germans. That's how it was. But what is left of the story is this rhetoric of "saving". And that is what many people believe. I think it has a lot to do with generational issues. People who grew up in the 1950s to 1960s have always heard: "Something was destroyed there, but we saved what was to be saved". It's not just a case of unwillingness to see, it's also a case of people being unable to see.
The logic pushed in this this argument is that we Europeans have museums in which we can preserve things, whereas Africans cannot.
Sarr: We respond to this argument in two steps. The first step is to point to the museums in Sub-Saharan Africa, where there are almost five hundred museums. The second is to say that the museum is just one of the places where we can put objects. But in the African psyche, you can imagine prior uses for the object. That means it’s not just an issue of having a museum or not, it’s an issue of how those societies relate to their objects.
What do you hope to gain from the return of African art treasures to Africa?
Sarr: For me, the most important is not the restitution. The restitution for me is a step, to point out the path to African reappropriation. Sometimes we say “objects” to these pieces of art but they are actually not objects within their history. How are we going to make them relevant to the youth? What is the right way to talk about these objects? What are we going to do to connect them with the issue of African colonial societies? For me, these are the main issues.
Why do you think the old cultural assets are so important for young people in Africa today? Aren't they much more connected to contemporary culture?
Sarr: It’s absolutely important to know that they came from a long history. It is very important for young people to know that they have a long history, they produced these artefacts, these material objects, spiritual objects. If you took all the paintings in the churches in Germany or in France and brought them to Senegal, how would the Germans and the French, you know, build themselves a sense of belonging. This applies to all people and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be important for Africans.
So it's some kind of attempt to bring history back to Africa?
Sarr: It’s important for a lot of reasons. One is to inscribe yourself in a long history and to know that the history of Africa didn’t begin during colonial times. It’s also important that these objects had a function in African societies, in ancient African society. In some places like Benin and Cameroon, we found communities where these objects have contemporary social functions. And most of these items aren’t even objects.
What are they then?
How do you mean?
Sarr: Because African communities, via rituals, gave them energy, personality, and they became the kind of artefacts that can act, that have all the power to act in their societies, and to see them only by the prism of “artefacts” or objects, is a very limited way of seeing their function.
Can you give an example of an artefact which is a subject?
Sarr: Yes. An artefact is not just a material expression of something. For Africans, these objects do not signify the material world. For them, the world is material and spiritual. Some of the artefacts were made to witness the invisible world. It’s very interesting to compare the vision and the conceptions of what are artefacts and what are not.
How did these artefacts end up being objects? Did that happen by taking them away?
Sarr: By putting them in museums.
Sarr: Yes, absolutely, because they were not meant to be in museums. They have a ritual function and some objects weren’t meant to be seen by other people. This act of putting them in a place where the object has to be seen for themselves, for its beauty, is a Western idea.
Interview by René Aguigah and Jenny Friedrich-Freksa.
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