Return of African Icons 2020

Fallism and restitution: Removing racist statues and returning looted art objects

Fallism and restitution: Removing racist statues and returning looted art objects
  • PublishedAugust 17, 2020

Communities are making connections between racist statues in the streets and displays of White supremacy in museums. Fallism and the quest to return Africa’s plundered cultural heritage are part of the same struggle, say Professors Dan Hicks and Nicholas Mirzoeff.

‘Fallism’ is an African movement – and one with a long history. From the moment of independence, it was understood that colonial statues did not just represent colonisers, they operated as enduring and active forms of imperialism.

A ‘war on statues’ was declared in newly-independent Algeria in 1962, and the revolutionary practice of removing colonial-era statues spread to Mozambique, Congo and beyond.

A watershed moment came in April 2015, almost a generation after the end of apartheid, with the removal of the figure of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town. The repercussions of that moment are still unfolding at a global level today.

The far-right violence around the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 made the removal of Confederate statues across the United States a key element of Black Lives Matter.

Today, in the wake of the racist murder of George Floyd and the period of reflection the coronavirus pandemic has brought, fallism is reversing the tide of colonial remembrance wherever the racist fantasy of a ‘White’ Atlantic has been monumentalised.

In June 2020, after decades of dialogue and inaction, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled from his plinth in Bristol, England, and cast into the harbour.

At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt towering on horseback above African and Indian figures will finally be removed.

Now protesters are questioning why there are tens of thousands of African objects held in the museum’s vaults, many looted during the American Museum Congo Expedition of 1909-1915, others ‘donated’ by the genocidal King Leopold II of Belgium.

At the Museum of London, Docklands, on West India Quay, the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan has gone. Activists are now calling for the museum’s display of Benin Bronzes to be removed from the ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ gallery, and returned to Nigeria. 

Restitution, just like fallism, is a longstanding African decolonising movement. As this new transatlantic civil rights era begins to unfold, these twin movements hold at least three common lessons for the global north. 

Dismantling racist monuments is not a movement to close down museums or empty out galleries. Fallism and restitution arose in the half-century from the 1880s to the 1930s, during which culture was aggressively put to work to re-naturalise the idea of racial hierarchy in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.

Some will misrepresent this disassembling as violence, but restitution and fallism take action to bring to an end displays built to perpetuate anti-Black violence, the destruction of life-worlds, and the objectification of African people through the incarceration of sacred, royal and ancestral material culture.

Revealing the links

Communities are connecting racist statues in the streets and displays of White supremacy in museums. They are revealing links between Europe’s corporate colonial military democides in the so-called scramble for Africa from the 1880s – memorialised in trophies of war locked up in ‘world culture’ galleries – and the ongoing wave of police killings of Black, Brown and native people.

Removal is not destruction or iconoclasm. As for the historic built environment, so for museum displays – change is a crucial element of curation if art, culture and heritage are to keep in step with changing social, ethical and community values.

Africa’s fallism movement has challenged Euro-American cultural institutions to tear down what Frantz Fanon called ‘the world of statues’, the coloniser’s claim that their dominance was set in stone.

Visual regimes of display and dispossession were and are a central device of racial ideology.

Let’s imagine the streets of the global north free from racist statues, and world culture museums where nothing is stolen.

Here, the fallism movement offers a lesson for the next steps for restitution. Yes, dialogue is crucial, but it’s not an end in itself. Its pace must keep step with this fast-changing public moment. And dialogue must now be accompanied by action on restitution to Africa and all other formerly colonised places.

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Nicholas Mirzoeff is Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU.


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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