Restitution of looted African art by former colonizers discussed at conference in Harlem

By Isseu Diouf Campbell

On October 19, 2019, Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies hosted a full day conference on the restitution of African art looted by former colonizers France, England and Germany among others at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies.

Several scholars including Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy, authors of a report prepared for French president Emmanuel Macron in November 2018 were among the speakers.

According to Felwine Sarr, 80% of African art from Sub-Saharan Africa totaling a number of 90,000 objects are in French Museums.

Even though the report authored by Sarr and Savoy traced the origin and circumstances around the disappearance of the 90,000 objects, the French government is awaiting claims from looted African nations before returning the objects.

Since the report was released, France has only returned a single object to the country of Benin.

The countries of Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Morocco, have already sent their letters of claim to the French government while Mali, Burkina Faso and Gabon are working on theirs.

Several voices from the western world argue that these objects were not stolen but saved from certain destruction and are better off in western museums.

To Felwine Sarr, the imbalance of power between Africa and the West is the reason behind such arguments that some would consider unacceptable. He insists that these pieces of art were created in an African climate; many of them centuries before they were stolen and the African societies who created them have the ability to preserve them.

The debate around restitution of African art is not new. Benedicte Savoy reminded the audience that the same debate took place on national television in France and Germany in the 70’s just to fade away in the 80’s.

What seems to be lacking in this restitution debate is an independent body powerful enough to hold the looting nations accountable. The stolen artifacts should be returned to their rightful owners, the African nations where they were created.