Restitution and repatriation of sub-Saharan African art and cultural heritage in museums and private collections is an area of increasing global focus and debate.
Many of these works are in Western museums and were acquired by European countries from their former colonies particularly through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections, and/or taken without sufficient documentation of consent or adequate compensation. Racist attitudes that underpinned colonialism have, for the most part, not changed, and this makes the debate contentious.
In November 2018, president Emmanuel Macron asked for a groundbreaking 258-page report during his tenure on the restitution of African art (The Sarr-Savoy Report), since major museums in the United Kingdom and France (the two major colonial powers) were not addressing the issue.
The report was a positive step in the right direction; it is the first time a European leader acknowledged there was something wrong with Western institutions holding plundered works hostage.
However, little concrete action has been taken since by France or the international museum sector since the report’s release.
Macron promised to return objects looted from their African homelands, starting with 26 artifacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey, now Republic of Benin, taken by colonial military leader Alfred Amédée Dodds in 1890.
However, they have still not been sent back.
The French culture minister reportedly asked heritage professionals at a recent symposium in Paris “not to focus on the sole issue of restitution”, but to instead emphasize cultural cooperation with Africa.