That’s the big question usually on the African cultural table talks. In answer: why not? Why shouldn’t they return Africa’s artifacts? Is it even an item for negotiations?
Artifacts as described by the Merriam Webster dictionary is “something characteristic of or resulting from a particular human institution, period, trend, or individual.”
This definition is important given it’s not just a cultural item that’s on discussion, but a whole set of historical significance for a specific ethnic grouping, a community and in recent times, a nation.
Nonetheless, one tends to wonder why is it that those who acclaimed themselves as culturally, spiritually, physically, intellectually and psychologically superior, took away artifacts and items of historical significance from a people they regarded as inferior and uncultured.
As open historical knowledge recounts; in wars, the conqueror more often than not takes booty from the conquered faction once the battle records are set straight. But can this explanation excuse Africa’s colonizers who sought supremacy without interaction and wars without cause?
Why then did they take Africa’s artifacts?
As Khan Academy posits: “The appreciation of African art in the Western world has had an enormous impact not only on the development of modern art in Europe and the United States but also on the way African art is presented in a Western museum setting. Although objects from Africa were brought to Europe as early as the fifteenth century, it was during the colonial period that a greater awareness of African art developed. The cultural and aesthetic milieu of late-nineteenth-century Europe fostered an atmosphere in which African artifacts, once regarded as mere curios, became admired for their artistic qualities. African sculpture, in particular, served as a catalyst for the innovations of modernist artists. Seeking alternatives to realistic representation, Western artists admired African sculpture for its abstract conceptual approach to the human form...”
As long of an extract this is, accept its insight in explaining perhaps one of the core reasons as to why Europe took Africa’s artifacts to their historical reserves. For isn’t this worthy of an explanation enough to justify their cause of retaining up to 90 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's material legacy as the 2018 report of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy conveys?
An explanation-summation that Europe finds inspiration and an understanding of the history of human development and determination from Africa’s artifacts?
For if this isn’t so, why then is returning our Artifacts not as easy as it should be for them? Just a matter of opening their catalogues and shipping back the items to their rightful owners?
As Condé Vast Traveler records one of the reasons as to why this isn’t made easier as it should be, is because “many museums, in France and elsewhere, say they fear their walls and exhibitions will be empty if they return (the) items.” Other reports hold that another given reason is that Europe can better manage, care and preserve our Artifacts than we Africans.
Again I posit: why is it that those who acclaimed themselves as culturally, spiritually, physically, intellectually and psychologically superior, took away artifacts and items of historical significance from a people they regarded as inferior and uncultured?
Are we the only ones, as Africans, rallying for such a call?
We are not the only ones (Africans) rightfully pleading for the return of our Artifacts. Greece has also been vocal on this issue, especially under Melina Mercouri- the 1981 Greek Minister of Culture.
Melina Mercouri fought tirelessly for the return of Parthenon marbles to their original home: Athens. These “…Greek treasures…were violently torn from the temple’s frieze by workers of Lord Elgin in 1802 when Greece was under Turkish occupation…”
The saddest tale is alike some African narratives; Greece hasn’t had its marbles returned to them. It’s of public records that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the marbles were attained legally at that time, using justifiable laws instated then, at their time of acquisition.
Worth the note, it’s not just Greece and Africa on this rallying call; other countries such as India, Pakistan, Russia, China etc. have been documented for fighting for the return of their historical products which were attained by their ‘housers’ via different means and at different historical periods.
How then is Africa’s rally different from the rest?
As earlier positioned, based on a 2018 report, up to 90 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s material legacy are in the hands of others.
Quartz Africa reports that amongst the top-ranking Museums in Europe: Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium comes first in holding 180,000 African artifacts in its possession. This is followed by Humboldt Forum in Germany with 75,000 African artifacts; Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in France with 70,000; British Museum with 69,000 (though other reports argue this figure is at 73,000); Weltmuseum of Vienna in Austria with 37,000 and the list continues.
With these statistics, I’m confident in postulating that if you want to understand your history as a child of the African soil, you have to learn it from the museums of your colonizers.
This is why the rally for the return of Africa’s artifacts is different. It’s not just one piece in the possession of our past and arguably so, now colonizers. It’s nearing 90 per cent of our collective history as Africans. It’s our identity and a reminder of the greatness we birthed on this planet called earth.
However, notably, some countries: France leading them all, per my observations, have taken the path of rightful historical positioning by returning some artifacts back to Africa. The U.K. as argued by some, have lagged behind on this trail.
In support of this, Condé Vast Traveler registers that: “France may be slowly moving forward on restitution, but the UK, U.S., and other Western countries and museums are not taking such concrete steps; instead of engaging in seemingly endless dialogue with few concrete plans and timelines for giving items back…”
Albeit, it’s worth highlighting that recently the U.K. has restituted Ethiopia of its Maqdala treasures and Benin Kingdom of one of its bronzes.
What’s the way forward?
The way forward is and should only be restitution. Restitution of Africa’s artifacts without any form of negotiations.
The dialogue tables should be closed and affirmative action taken by those housing historical products that don’t belong to them. For it isn’t worthy of a nudge to have Africans like Mwazulu Diyabanza take triggered actions such as yanking or attempting to yank artifacts from European museums because the latter have refused to return what doesn’t rightfully belong to them; keen to attest, Mwazulu’s fight is a legal fight of history that could be easily solved by more action and less talk from the concerned parties?
Now the question remains, when will all of Africa’s artifacts be restituted and is it even possible to restitute all the aforementioned to Africa or will this war of history pour out to the next (future) generations of Africans and Europeans?
Time and leadership will truly tell, but a word of advice is offered by Onyekachi Wambu, executive director of AFFORD (The African Foundation for Development in the United Kingdom): “Why do you have Ghanaian treasures in your museum? Put your real history in the museums so we can all have a conversation about how the U.K. was built, rather than filling the museums with the Elgin marbles, Benin treasures, or Egyptian treasures, and pretending that’s got something to do with British history.”
This same piece of advice applies equivalently to all in possession of Africa’s artifacts.