Restitution of Art Objects: Bringing in African Perspectives

By Wazi Apoh and Andreas Mehler

The debate on the restitution of colonially-‘acquired’ art objects from Africa is boiling in Paris and Berlin, but in other quarters of the world it has not even started. The silence in the United Kingdom and also in many of the concerned African countries is baffling.

Just recently, German Secretaries of State, Monika Grütters and Michelle Müntefering published a high-profile article in the leading daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with far-reaching suggestions, inter alia, asking to bring the debate into German schoolbooks and university amphitheatres. The German epistemic community has pushed the topic even further, with the latest initiative being a petition to build a central memorial for the victims of German colonialism. In France, President Macron set the tone when he declared in late 2017 that all art objects stolen from Africa should be returned. While domestically in defensive mode (in regards to issues like the yellow jackets), internationally, the French President often holds a vanguard position. Also to this case, Macron has commissioned a report by the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy. Its release in December has pushed things even further. French museums are now under strong pressure to start restitution processes.

Benin Bronzes at the British Museum | Image by Raj Patel, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons

A source of concern is the metropolitan bias of this debate. There is hardly any attention given to the demands and voices raised within Africa. The trigger of the German debate was clearly the pending inauguration of the controversial Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Emotions run high along German ideological fault-lines and much of the debate is centred on the future of ethnographic museums and collections between Hamburg and Stuttgart, and from Cologne to Dresden. But what is happening in Africa?

Arguably, the place where discussions are being held is an important condition to the context of its content. In December 2018, a group of African and European scholars, museum practitioners, heritage custodians and policy-makers gathered at the University of Ghana. They discussed the shortcomings and inadequacies in the current debate on restitution and provenance in a different fashion. The trust towards European museums and governments was visibly low with African participants as long as there is only talk about and not palpable acts of restitution. Furthermore, researchers asked for free access to inventories and catalogues of European museums as there is little transparency in what is stocked in repositories, where only a minimal fraction of objects ever make it to exhibitions. The far-reaching statement at the close of the event raised attention in the epistemic community, but was not widely publicised by the media. More of such gatherings will have to take place in the sub-regions of Africa and at more specific places of origin.

The year 2019 will see the return to Africa of some (symbolically) highly valued objects. Among those are the bible and the whip of Hendrik Witbooi, the Nama leader who opposed German colonial expansion in today’s Namibia. Negotiations on the terms, circumstances and participants of the entire procedure were lengthy and painful. One could learn from this and other cases with the aim of formulating best practices for the governance of restitution processes, including  a) early negotiation of terms of reference between the relevant partners (museums, governmental bodies, communities); b) clarification of any competing claims on the objects themselves; c) approximate timelines for additional research on the objects’ provenance (if deemed necessary); d) validation of the authenticity of restituted objects; e) joint development of exhibition policies between the source community, country of origin and European museums that transfer objects to Africa.

What is also lacking is true engagement from the official African side. For example, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) are absent from the current discussion (as is, by the way, the European Union). Potentially even more important would be concrete ideas and initiatives by the Regional Economic Communities, i.e. the sub-regional organisations within Africa. A good number of objects stemming from today’s ‘transborder communities’ were acquired with the use of force in precolonial times. Who could clearly say whether a Fang mask has to return to Gabon, Cameroon or Equatorial Guinea? Some initial colonial boundaries have shifted over time, such as the case of former German Togoland that is now ensconced within the Ghana-Togo sovereign and border lands. This brings to the fore the local, national, sub-regional, continental and transregional aspects of restitution; there are issues of participation, legitimacy and ownership at stake at all levels. Thus, the need to take the discussions of restitution to source regions is key to this unfolding ‘drama’ of restitution processes.

It is also quite obvious that the debate on restitution contains many new opportunities – for interdisciplinary research (not only in museum didactics, anthropology and history, but also in archaeology, law and political science), but first and foremost for ‘reciprocal research’ and for truly ‘transregional studies’. African research inquiring into European practices of initial collectors, the trajectory of the art market with African objects, (the shortcomings of) provenance research, and museum exhibition policies etc. would certainly set new priorities and shed a different light on one of the key aspects of colonisation and decolonisation: the formation of identity and alterity via the representations of transferred objects.


Wazi Apoh is lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Ghana. In December 2018, he convened the international workshop, ‚Issues of Restitution and Repatriation of Looted and Illegally Acquired African Objects in European Museums‚ at the University of Ghana.

Andreas Mehler is director of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute and Professor of Political Science at Freiburg University since October 2015 after having served as director of the GIGA Institute of African Affairs in Hamburg (2002-2015).


Citation: Wazi Apoh and Andreas Mehler, Restitution of Art Objects: Bringing in African Perspectives, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.02.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17811.


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