Does Returning Colonial Loot Run the Risk of Collective Amnesia?

Restitution is critical but we can’t let the process be co-opted by those who seek to evade responsibility for Europe’s pillaging past

In France, 2019 began with the launch of president Emmanuel Macron’s ‘grand debate’: an open invitation to the French people encouraging them to participate in discussions around public policy. Despite this attempt to ease political discontent, protests led by the Gilets Jaunes movement have continued to mobilize thousands across the country with more violent clashes between police and protestors. The implication of this is that Macron is still failing to engage with the real issues that matter, demonstrating once more a political strategy characterized by gestures that attempt to pacify or whitewash without tackling the fundamental roots of a political crisis.

Gilets jaunes protesters, November 2018, Paris. Courtesy: Getty Images, AFP; photograph: Bertrand Guay

Gilets jaunes protesters, November 2018, Paris. Courtesy: Getty Images, AFP; photograph: Bertrand Guay

This becomes particularly important to note, when considering Macron’s vocal condemnation of France’s colonial past. In 2017 during a tour through West Africa, Macron promised an auditorium of students at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, that returning art and artefacts looted during the colonial period from Africa was of utmost priority to him as soon as he returned to France.

Benin president Patrice Talon had in fact made an official request a year earlier for certain pieces of local heritage to be returned, the most recent in a long line of unacknowledged requests since the 1960s. Last November, following a lengthy report by the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by Macron, the French president promised the restitution of 26 objects to Benin, taken by the French army in 1892, as well as plans for much more widespread restitution across the continent. The news was celebrated widely while also throwing a number of museums and institutions across Europe into existential crisis.

It may be reductive however to present the act of restitution so simply. That is to say, Macron announces the gesture as if he conjured it ex-nihilo, art and artefacts are returned, and hey presto, the chapter on France’s ugly colonial past is closed. There are arguments from all sides of the political spectrum as to why these pieces should be returned (aside from a few patchy counter-arguments about the ability of the proprietors to provide adequate facilities or whether there is adequate legal framework for restitution to take place on this scale.) However, while we might be unequivocal about the imperative to return looted art and artefacts, there is something disquieting about the present state-sanctioned process.

Beyond the surface of triumph, there are a few important largely interlinked points to consider. Firstly, the historical power imbalance between France and Africa and the persisting paternalistic Françafrique relationship, characterized most notably by a number of commercial agreements as well as the numerous French military interventions in Africa since the late 1980s. Secondly, there is an inherent power hierarchy that emerges through the act of bestowing or bequeathing objects, even once stolen property. Thirdly, the gulf between an anticolonial gesture and the state’s neo-colonial practices and policies needs to be examined. And finally the fraying solidity of Macron’s presidency should not be overlooked amid the congratulatory reporting on this political gesture.

Treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Gerard Julien

Treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Gerard Julien

These are not points that have been overlooked by Sarr and Savoy; they have done their job well, highlighting the persisting struggles and grassroots movements that have brought this project to fruition. ‘Can we thus think of restitutions as being something more than a mere strategic maneuver – neither merely an economic or political strategy – but rather something truly cultural in the sense of the Latin verb colere, to ‘inhabit’, ‘cultivate’, and ‘honor’?’ they write in their chapter ‘Mission Impossible.’ While there is no didactic response to this question within the report, the authors clearly think it possible. Felwine Sarr has nonetheless seen it necessary to continue to vocally underline the necessity to refrain from framing the act as one of a magnanimous and benevolent gesture, whereby France is an active giver of goods and Africa a passive receptacle.

While the act of restitution needs to take place, what this present state-sanctioned gesture indicates is in fact a concurrent opportunity to deconstruct received notions of hospitality, solidarity and allying. Meaning that these terms should not become conceptually aligned with notions of charity, benevolence and bestowing and the paternalistic fallout that they can sometimes imply. In other words, restitution cannot fall into the impasse of the reinstitution of historic power hierarchies, nor should it be instrumentalized to curry political favour by co-opting the work of popular struggles for justice.

There must not be a quiet institutional disposal of objects considered no longer useful to France, trussed up as an act of international originality and benevolence. This runs the risk of collective social amnesia, for history to be swept under the rug and the residual relationships of difference and dominance to spawn a neo-racism: a racism which, according to the French Marxist philosopher Etienne Balibar, emerges around a discourse on the insurmountability of cultural difference and the preservation of cultural specificity under the guise of anti-racism. For all the problematic things ethnographic museums stand for, they at least serve as embarrassing reminders of Europe’s pillaging past, physical locations through which we can alter perception.

Protecting Statuette, Mambila population, Donga Valley, Nigeria, held in the collection of Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Protecting Statuette, Mambila population, Donga Valley, Nigeria, held in the collection of Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In his speech receiving the 2018 Gerda Henkel prize, philosopher Achille Mbembe claims that the West wants Africa to take back its objects without giving any account of itself and the wrongs it has committed, to enter an era of closure void of weaving new relations. ‘So the question we have to ask ourselves is the following,’ he says, ‘will we facilitate its task by renouncing every right to remember? Or will we dare to go further and decline the offer of repatriation, transforming these objects into eternal proof of what Europe committed, but what it wants to take no responsibility for?’ There may not be a programmatic response, however he claims ‘there can’t be an authentic restitution in the absence of these debates on matters of truth.’ For if Europe sees no ethical obligation to restitution, the risk is that paternalistic, patronising benevolence and political strategy become the driving forces for return.

France shining the spotlight on this debate has particularly unsettled Germany, home to the largest number of ethnographic museums in the world today. This is especially notable due to the scheduled opening of the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin later this year, housing 20,000 colonial-era objects with a forecasted annual budget of EUR€60 million. A recent solution posited by German Culture Minister Monika Grütters has been to announce a research fund of EUR€1.9 million to be made available to institutions willing to undertake provenance research on colonial-era objects. While it may be insufficient on many fronts, mainly due to its lack of commitment to restitution, this initiative nonetheless attempts to recognize these objects for what they are: that is, objects that contribute to histories and art histories, objects which cannot be reduced to their anthropological or ethnographic capacity to render another culture transparent to the Western gaze. 

However should we succeed in restitutions, artist Daniela Ortiz, with her ongoing body of work Anti-Colonial Monuments (2018), lays claim to the necessity for a counter history to be created in place of this removal, creating a series of maquettes as proposals for replacements for Christopher Columbus statues across the globe; colourful, playful structures that platform the work of women and boldly denounce the oppressors of the past and the present. She argues that the baton must be handed over to popular resistance movements so the narrative of history can cease to be dictated by the same power hierarchies. This means both aesthetic formal responses should emerge from a space which opposes state power, and that grassroots movements should be perpetually brought to the fore. As Sarr and Savoy note in their report, ‘in France as well as in Germany and Great Britain, but also in Cameroon, Benin, Ethiopia, Nigeria, or in Ghana, militant non-profit organizations have begun to vigorously support reflections on restitutions over the past several years, demanding answers from the political class.’

French president Emmanuel Macron, 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

French president Emmanuel Macron, 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In Sarr and Savoy’s study, they additionally note the work of CRAN (The Representative Council of Black Associations) who brought the question of restitution to the national political agenda in France, as well as the work of Alter Natives who work in Paris and its suburbs educating young people on the subject of restitution and cultural heritage. Herein lies the crux of the issue: we cannot efface these organizations and people who have contributed so much to the struggle, in order to allow for a narrative which circulates around the magnanimity of Macron, born after decolonization and thus absolved of the crimes of his country.

For Macron, whose presidency seems to be hanging on solely through the international perception of him as the great moderate saviour, these headline-grabbing gestures are of utmost importance. While the motion of anti-colonial restitution is a valid one, the eruption of national discontent is gaining momentum through France with the Gilet Jaunes protest movement spreading its tendrils to a convergence of struggles across all strata of French society, contesting, among a number of other things, tax deductions for the rich, police brutality, university fee increases, neo-colonial immigration laws and trade policies. While Macron is being congratulated across the board for the potential ‘rupture with the past’ that such restitution could signify, it is clear that if global structural relations of domination are not addressed, it becomes a purely symbolic act – one that serves to dismiss responsibility for the past, and to gloss over the unhappier elements of his presidency.

Main image: People visit the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac where some 300,000 works originating from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas were displayed until March 15, 2018, in Paris. Courtesy: AFP Photo, Ludovic Marin and Getty Images

Jess Saxby is a writer, translator and teacher based in Paris.

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