African nations need to work together to pressure Europe to return looted art held in its museums, such as Germany’s newly opened Humboldt Forum, says DW’s Harrison Mwilima.
Among the priceless works held by Germany’s new Humboldt Forum museum, a massive cultural complex in Berlin, are 75,000 African artefacts. It’s not clear how some of these objects made their way into German hands during the colonial-era.
But the provenance of the Benin bronzes, considered among Africa’s greatest treasures, is known. Several thousand artefacts were looted by British soldiers in 1897 from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, in what is now modern-day Nigeria. Around 200 ended up at the British Museum in London, while the rest was divided up between a variety of Western collections, including museums in Germany.
Objects from the Benin bronzes will form the centrepiece of the Humboldt Forum’s Africa exhibition, which is planned to open in the third quarter of 2021.
The speeches at Humboldt Forum’s opening ceremony last week included some voices critical of the museum’s role in exhibiting these, and other looted artefacts.
And then it ended there. An ending that seemed to be over too early.
It feels like a book that has been closed although there are so many unwritten chapters lying ahead.
Nigeria among those demanding art back
A week before the Humboldt Forum’s opening, Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany Yusuf Tuggar sent a second letter to the German government asking for the return of the Benin bronzes held in Germany. Tuggar says he never received a response from the German government to his first letter sent in August 2019.
Nigeria is among the growing number of African countries formally requesting the restitution of artefacts pilfered during the colonial-era.
Last year, Germany gave back a 500-year-old stone cross to Namibia after the Namibian government officially requested its return in 2017.
Ethiopia has repeatedly asked for artefacts back from Britain while Benin, Senegal and Ivory Coast are among those countries which have asked France to return objects taken during the colonial era.
Many of these requests seem to fall on deaf ears: The relationship between former colonial powers and the formerly colonized are still marred with power asymmetry.
Other African governments may not decide to take a strong role in requesting for their artworks and objects for fear of losing development aid and international support from their former colonial masters.
This has led to many African governments not being active in their requests, thus most of the push for restitution has been left to various NGOs, activists and other committed individuals.
The movements and debates going on in Europe need to take place also in African countries.
A groundbreaking report in 2018 by Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy estimates that 90% of African artworks and cultural objects such as sculptures, masks, burial objects, jewellery and ritual objects are located outside the African continent. In order to facilitate the return of those African looted arts, African governments must take centre stage.
The quest for restitution should be a key item on the agenda in most African countries and key policy guidelines should be developed on how to facilitate this process.
In this context, African sub-regional organizations could also play a strong role.
Taking the East African Community (EAC) as an example, once member states have developed their national policies to facilitate restitution, they could move forward and develop a regional position to push their agenda beyond their nations.
This could also be taken further to the continental level, whereby the positions of sub-regional groups could be taken to the African Union to create a strong continental position on restitution to recover cultural heritage.
The African Union’s Agenda 2063 already shows the continent’s intention of building Africa with a strong identity.
How is that possible when a large part of this identity has been stolen and is inaccessible in museum archives or generating income for European cities as the star attractions of museum exhibitions.
How many Africans can make a journey to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and learn about their cultural heritage?
And even when they manage to make that trip, from whose point of view are they going to receive such explanations?