Sunday , February 28 2021

African art stolen: "It's not about the evacuation of French museums"

In their report on the "Return of the African Cultural Heritage to a New Relational Ethics", which took place on Friday, the two authors recommend paving the way for the return of African artworks. Historian Bénédicte Savoy is split between the Collège de France in Paris, where he holds the international chair "Cultural History of the Heritage in Europe (XVIII-XXe centuries) and in Berlin where he teaches the history of art at the Polytechnic. Felwine Sarr is an economist and teaches at the University of Saint-Louis in Senegal, but is also a publisher, musician and writer. He is mainly the author of an essay: Afrotopia (Philippe Rey, 2016). They say release how, without prejudice, they started from the history of the objects preserved in France to talk about the history of heritage conception.

Why write a report on the restoration of African projects alone?

Most scholars consider 85 or 90% of Africa's artistic heritage to be outside the continent. This is an anomaly on a global scale. No other continent knows this situation. There are works we see everywhere in Australia, Latin America, Egypt, Greece … No one sees anything in Africa. This exception justifies the rebalancing of African geography in the world. We are not going to punish some and give everything back to others. But African youth has a right to her inheritance. Africans do not even have access to the creativity of their ancestors. Reconnecting with this cultural history is also a dynamic future. The African heritage has cultivated an entire European artistic avant-garde – Picasso and surrealists, not to mention all the young artists or European designers who can now eat in museums from here and elsewhere.

This report could give ideas to African states and trigger new demands for rehabilitation …

The issue of returns is an old story that starts with independence. African demands are multiple. It is strange that in the 1980s European societies were in the same situation as today: we were very close to returning the projects thanks to the resilience of the new independent countries and to Unesco. However, this moment has been completely forgotten, and today we "find out" this question. The report will not "give ideas" to the African countries, but have been in circulation for a long time. But the different demands that have been made in the past have not been heard. This discouraged other countries from participating in procedures.

What does it mean for a country that has been deprived of its memory for a hundred and fifty years?

We raise the question of the arrest of cultural heritage as a weapon of war or a weapon of impoverishment. In some countries, the memory of the losses is still alive because it is linked to the end of an empire or violent military action. We should define this method of acquiring in museums, for example in a cartel. There is amnesia on these issues. From country to country, the memory of loss is very variable. What is the return of the items we have never seen? Symbolic redefinition is critical.

We also thought about the issue of damages. Always starting with the objects. Some of them are indeed more than objects, acting subjects, possessors of actions, beliefs … This sacred value is often permanently lost, irreparable. It is an incompatible, non-compensatory loss. We are therefore thinking of symbolic restoration, which is not necessarily economically quantifiable, but it allows new relations between Africa and Europe to be created, fairer and more respectable.

Do you dispute the conflict?

Of course, we know that discussions are likely to be difficult, that there may be some hardening at the time of deliveries. But we have managed to fulfill our mission in peace and dialogue. We were impatient to do this work in a very meticulous way, not in a controversial way. We had no prejudices. Starting with their objects and their history, we put our finger in the colonial framework, into a system of cultural exploitation added to the natural resources exploitation system. It is a scientific work, we have done historical work. We do not place ourselves morally but historically in the course of the objects. And about the history of the symbolic and real violence of this collection of heritage.

Should we not work to ensure that there is a trace of this looting in France?

It is not a matter of evacuating the French museums, so there will always be many works to bear witness to this history of heritage conception. But we also need a real job for departures and returns. The history of the composition of these collections must appear in museums at the same time as the works. The museums of Nantes or Angoulême have already begun a great job on this issue.

Catherine Calv


Guillaume Lecaplain

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