Return of African Icons 2020

Why Africa’s stolen treasures must be returned

Why Africa’s stolen treasures must be returned
  • PublishedSeptember 17, 2020

Estimates suggest that 80-90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is currently held outside the continent. Onyekachi Wambu, Executive Director of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), explains why these cultural treasures should be returned to their rightful owners.

African icons held in Western museums and private collections are stories that distil understanding of the cosmos, civilisations, expressions of beauty, historical personalities, as well as stories of encounter, trade, violence and conquest.

The return of African icons, both human and cultural, looted during the periods of slavery, empire and colonialism, is essential for us to revisit and re-engage with these important aspects of African history, ideas, personalities and aesthetics. The icons are the naissance of the African Union’s 2063 renaissance agenda.

Estimates suggest that 80-90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is currently held outside the continent as a result of conquest, plunder, theft, and colonisation, as well as legitimate trade and exchange.

These objects are of great artistic, cultural, religious, sacred and economic value. There have been loud calls for their return from the moment they were taken, often in violent encounters.

More recently, in 1976, the Nigerian government requested a temporary loan of the Queen Idia of Benin Mask from the British Museum, for use as the emblem of the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77). The request was denied, and the mask remains in the British Museum. The mask was one of 4,000 artefacts looted by British soldiers following their conquest of the Benin Empire.

In 1992, the African continental body, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) established a Reparations Committee, which among other demands, sought the return of African cultural artefacts held in Western museums and cultural institutions.

The restitution movement was energised by another important historic development in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s President. This was a momentous occasion for global Africans, signifying the official end of an age in history – the age of slavery, colonialism and second-class citizenship of people of African descent.

For the previous 400 years, constitutions and laws in different countries around the globe, but especially in the Atlantic space, enshrined African inferiority. This ended with the final liberation in South Africa, 190 years after the first in Haiti.

Since 1994, restitution demands have frequently been intermixed with a number of other discrete but related campaigns, involving the eight ‘Rs’ which are part of the overall reckoning by the Black and African world of the damaging impact and legacies of slavery and colonialism.

The eight Rs

The eight ‘Rs’ have often worked as a continuum of one broader movement, seeking:

  1. recognition and acknowledgement of the crimes of slavery and colonialism
  2. remembrance of the victims
  3. restoration of dignity
  4. restitution of physical artefacts & human remains
  5. financial and psychological reparations and healing
  6. physical and mental reconnections between the severed African world
  7. physical human return, as has been achieved by communities such as the Rastafarians in Ethiopia
  8. and finally, holistic reconstruction of African societies.

Click to view a timeline of the eight Rs in a separate window.

Restitution campaigns have been especially animated by the following reasons:

Human dignity

The agitation for the return of human remains, such as those of Mbuya Nehanda, the former spiritual leader of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, has been particularly vocal and emotional.

Restoration of cultural heritage and patrimony

As a resource for the education of future generations. Campaigns for the return of artefacts have been given added impetus by the publication in 2018 of the Sarr-Savoy Report: ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage – Toward a New Relational Ethics’.

Commissioned by the French President Emmanuel Macron, the report makes a number of recommendations:

  1. French museums should create thorough inventories of the collections to be shared with the relevant African countries
  2. From November 2022, France should return all the claimed art works.

Socio-economic development

As part of growing cultural, heritage, and tourism sectors. An example of how critical heritage tourism can be to African economies is Ghana’s Year of Return programme in 2019, which attracted over a million diaspora visitors and generated $1.8bn in additional spending, with its attendant multiplier effect.

Many young diaspora visitors to Ghana were struck, after visiting the slave castles, by how little there was to see in local museums because most of the collections were in museums abroad. Links have now been made between heritage tourism and the restitution of artefacts.

The global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement

The movement triggered by the killing of George Floyd has opened up important debates around continuing structural racism. The pulling down of the statue of notorious Bristol slaver, Edward Colston, focused these debates on controversial icons and monuments from the UK’s history of empire and colonialism. AFFORD’s recent Return of the Icons Zoom webinar has shown the debate has increasingly shifted from “why should we?” or “we can’t return the African icons” to “how can we begin a process of negotiation and return?”

The Return of African Icons 2020 special report

This Return of African Icons 2020 special report brings together a number of critical stakeholders and experts on restitution issues, who seek to answer some of the following questions:

  1. Under what conditions were these icons, both cultural and human, taken in the first place?
  2. Why do Africans want them back? And what are the pathways for return?
  3. Which items have been returned and how was that achieved?
  4. Why do some Western institutions continue to hold on to their collections?
  5. Are African museums and cultural institutions ready to receive back many of these fragile treasures?
  6. Finally, as Africans await their return, are there already best practices that can guarantee win-win options between African and Western institutions?

These questions are not exhaustive and neither are the articles in this report – instead, as the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated, these pages can provide a platform to accelerate debate and the process of restitution.

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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