Recovering Africa’s artifacts

2019-12-18 06:00

FRENCH Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently presented an antique saber to Senegalese President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar. But it was not a gift. The saber was going home, more than a century after it had been stolen.

The repatriation of an item with deep historical, spiritual and cultural significance might seem like a mere gesture of colonial redress. But this ceremony was different, and it was about much more than a single physical object. In fact, it was a watershed moment in the West’s recognition of the cultural damage inflicted by colonialism.

The saber in question belonged to El Hajj Omar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, which once extended from present day Senegal into Mali and Guinea. Tall was a respected religious leader and anti-colonial resistance fighter. His weapon, along with tens of thousands of other pieces of looted African heritage, had been in French hands since the 1890s. Exhibited in French museums, the saber ceased to symbolise the military prowess of a once-powerful dynasty, and instead told the tale of an African empire’s decimation, thereby legitimising the racism and prejudice that underpinned the colonial period.

Tall’s family had been campaigning for the saber’s return since 1944, and they finally won their fight last month. Descendants travelled to Dakar to witness its homecoming. The saber will remain in Senegal for five years while France determines whether it, and other objects, will be permanently restituted.

This moment would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. European governments, museums and universities have long refused to recognise the immorality of the circumstances in which Africa’s cultural patrimony was removed from the continent. The handover of the saber was thus highly symbolic, auguring a shift in power dynamics and a new respect for Africa’s history. It also attests to the persistence of Africans in mobilising to demand that historical wrongs are righted.

Colonialism rested on the disavowal of African art, music and architecture. For decades, the Open Society Foundations have supported those at the front lines of societal transformation. We recognise the power of art and culture to call into question structural inequalities, challenge prejudice and foster the imagination of a new generation of leaders. Our cultural heritage forms the bedrock of the stories that we share to make sense of our place in history and in the world. And at its core, the creation of cultural artifacts is fundamentally a manifestation of human hope.

The Open Society Foundations are launching a $15 million initiative to strengthen efforts to ensure the restitution of artifacts looted from Africa. Over the next four years, we will be supporting individuals, communities, civil-society organisations and institutions working to return Africa’s heritage to its home, and to nurture in future generations of Africans a sense of ownership of their history, culture and identity.

Africa’s young people in particular, have been campaigning for the return of African artifacts. Having realised that young people are a critical force on a continent where the population is expected to grow by more than one billion to 2,5 billion by 2050, many former colonial powers have begun to listen.

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to make the return of African artifacts a priority. Since then, the Sarr-Savoy Report, commissioned by the French government, has launched a global conversation about the return of items looted from Africa. The report has recommended the immediate and unconditional return of cultural objects gained through theft, pillage, despoiling or unequal exchange during colonial times. The number of artifacts involved is staggering. The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium holds 180 000 pieces of sub-Saharan African heritage. The British Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris each hold about 70 000 African artifacts.

Restitution is about more than confronting the violent legacy of colonialism . It is about supporting the work that young Africans are doing to transform the racist narratives about their cultural heritage and history. It is about giving generations the means to shape a better future for themselves. It is, at its core, about restituting agency to a continent defining its path forward.

Project Syndicate.

• Patrick Gaspard is president of the Open Society Foundations.


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