Returning Appropriated Art to Africa, the French Debate

    A recent report commissioned by Macron advises that art pilfered from the African continent and placed in French museums be returned to their home countries. Obviously, this view does not sit well with many French museum curators. To get a different perspective, the New York Times interviewed three Africans in the arts about the possible impact of the report.

    Excepts from the discussion 

    But how do Africans see the challenges, both practical and philosophical, of restituting works of art? What does the Savoy-Sarr report augur for African museums, African governments and African artists? And what new meanings might these works of art accrue if they are returned to where they were made centuries ago?

    I posed those questions recently to three people with deep experience in African art. Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese philosopher and professor of French at Columbia University who advised Ms. Savoy and Mr. Sarr on parts of the report; Cécile Fromont, associate professor at Yale University, is a French art historian who specializes in exchanges between African and European populations; and Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-American artist, whose painstaking fictional portraits were seen last year in a Whitney Museum solo show and are on view through Feb. 3 in “For Opacity,” at the Drawing Center in Manhattan. These are edited excerpts from the conversation, over dinner at a Harlem restaurant. (The menu, suitably, was French/West African.)


    On making Africans a part of the discussion  

    MS. FROMONT That’s why the report is potentially so impactful. It demands that the logic of France’s relationship to Africa be renegotiated. It’s not simply about the objects, and where they are. By insisting on full restitution, the idea of “long-term loans” to African countries becomes as absurd as it sounds.


    Regarding children and society

    MS. FROMONT One of the most striking photographs of the Cotonou exhibition of the Dahomey treasures shows this long line of schoolchildren waiting to go in. And that is everything. Even if it’s sentimental to some extent, it’s also historically powerful in the French imagination. French national collections are central to the education of the citizen. That’s what the Louvre was meant to do: create the French citizen. So if it’s that important for France, you have to be really hypocritical to say that it’s not equally important for the children of Benin.


    On the concept of “returning” art

    Still, it’s not so much that we’re returning them back to their original home. The whole concept of “return” is very strange to me, because we know what they’re returning to is not where they came from. The context is completely altered. Yet I also understand that seeing the Benin Bronzes [over 1,000 plaques and sculptures looted nearly two centuries ago from the Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria] in the British Museum is even less natural than seeing them in an African museum.

    The discussion offers a different point of view on what to do with art taken during colonial periods. It is a powerful addition to the debate.





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