Return of African Icons 2020

Restitution of African cultural heritage: righting the future, not dwelling on the past

Restitution of African cultural heritage: righting the future, not dwelling on the past
  • PublishedAugust 26, 2020

With so many works of African art, artefacts, and human remains still held in the collections of Western museums, it’s essential to come together to make restitution a reality, say Rashida Bumbray, Ayisha Osori, and Anthony Richter.

For people who have long been denied justice, the return of African culture heritage is more than a symbolic gesture. Restitution – the process through which objects stolen by colonial powers can be returned to their communities of origin – is not about being preoccupied with the wrongs of the past, it is an action to right the future. 

With so many works of African art, artefacts, and human remains still held in the collections of Western museums, it’s essential to come together to make restitution a reality.

To do this, we need greater commitment and cooperation between national governments and multilateral institutions, leaders in the worlds of art and academia, African civil society and diaspora groups, and philanthropy. We must build on the work of Africans and those of African descent who for generations have advocated for returns.

Signs of progress

Since the publication of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report, we’re seeing hopeful signs of progress. France is currently reviewing legislation to officially return 26 looted artefacts to Benin and the sword of El Hadj Tall to Senegal – a welcome move for redressing France’s role in colonialism and repatriating some of its more than 90,000 artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa. Other efforts in various European countries remain in nascent stages.

To make greater strides, we need high-level discussions between Europe and Africa on the legacies of colonialism, and the development of commissions to focus on restitution policies.

The African Union has led the way by referencing restitution in Agenda 2063 and ECOWAS has established a five-year Action Plan to move this forward.

The research and policy recommendations of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) lay out clear pathways for returning looted cultural heritage held in the United Kingdom.

As the largest private funder of human rights, the Open Society Foundations are supporting restitution efforts as part of our mission to work for justice and equality – conditions that are only possible if we can fully uproot oppressive systems and dynamics.

As Open Society’s president, Patrick Gaspard, said when the initiative launched, “the legacy of colonial violence has deep implications for the ways that racism and imbalances of power are perpetuated today.”

That is why last November we pledged $15m towards strengthening efforts to return looted objects to the African continent. Over four years, our initiative – unique in the philanthropic world – will support visionary citizens, artists, educators, networks, and organisations advancing the cause of restitution.

Meaningful partnership is central to our approach, engaged through our local and regional foundations across the African continent, as well as our offices in Europe and the US. 

Stepping up the work on restitution

Our commitment is an invitation for others to step up on restitution. We are proud to support those leading the way, including diasporic groups like AFFORD and artistic initiatives like LagosPhoto in Nigeria, which has dedicated its upcoming 2020 festival to the theme of ‘Rapid Response Restitution’ and works to weave new narratives about African history and culture. Our hope is that other funders will also join with us in sustaining the vital movement for restitution. 

With Black Lives Matter demonstrations drawing thousands around the world, people are finding correlation between histories of oppression – whether slavery in the US or colonialism by European powers – and the violence of White Supremacy today.

Allowing the spoils of brutal exploitation and coercion to remain outside the African continent is a failure to come to terms with how colonial powers built their wealth on the backs of countries they stole from and how this has shaped our contemporary world and the ways Black people all over the world interact with each other. 

The past cannot be changed, but returning stolen items can help restore power to Africans and the diaspora for constructing a future free from the legacy of colonialism and anti-Blackness.

Although restitution is only one part of achieving reparations for crimes against Black people, we know it can open the door to possibility for communities robbed of their heritage – for dignity, for agency, for identity, for equality, and for justice. 

Rashida Bumbray, Director of the Culture and Art programme; Ayisha Osori, Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, and Anthony Richter, Director of Special Initiatives, together lead Open Society Foundations’ work to support the restitution of cultural heritage looted from the African continent.


About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report

This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.

The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.

Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.

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New African

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