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France asks: Should ex-colonizers give back African art?

From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums are eagerly awaiting a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron on how former colonizers can return African art to Africa.

'It's entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks:' Senegalese culture minister

A visitor walks past a 19th century door of the king's palace, removed from what is Benin today, at Quai Branly museum in Paris. From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums are eagerly awaiting a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron on how former colonizers can return African art to Africa. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums are eagerly awaiting a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron on how former colonizers can return African art to Africa.

The study by French art historian B​énédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, being presented to Macron on Friday in Paris, is expected to recommend that French museums give back works that were taken without consent, if African countries request them. That could increase pressure on museums elsewhere in Europe to follow suit.

The experts estimate that up to 90 per cent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts. Tens of thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies. The museum wouldn't comment ahead of the report's release.

Tens of thousands of African artworks and artifacts are held, for instance, by France's Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

The head of Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Yonas Desta, said the report shows "'a new era of thought" in Europe's relations with Africa. "I'm longing to see the final French report," he told The Associated Press.

Senegal's culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, said: "It's entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks. ... These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today."

The report is just a first step. Challenges ahead include enforcing the report's recommendations, especially if museums resist, and determining how objects were obtained and whom to give them to.

Macron's pledge

The report is part of broader promises by Macron to turn the page on France's troubled relationship with Africa. In a groundbreaking meeting with students in Burkina Faso last year, Macron stressed the "undeniable crimes of European colonization" and said he wants pieces of African cultural heritage to return to Africa "temporarily or definitively."

French President Emmanuel Macron, seen at centre meeting schoolchildren in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in November 2017, has said he wants pieces of African cultural heritage to return to Africa 'temporarily or definitively.' (Ahmed Yempabou Ouoba/Associated Press)

"I cannot accept that a large part of African heritage is in France," he said at the time.

The French report could have broader repercussions. In Cameroon, professor Verkijika Fanso, historian at the University of Yaounde One, said: "France is feeling the heat of what others will face. Let their decision to bring back what is ours motivate others."

Germany has worked to return art seized by the Nazis, and in May the organization that co-ordinates that effort, the German Lost Art Foundation, said it was starting a program to research the provenance of cultural objects collected during the country's colonial past.

Britain is also under pressure to return art taken from its former colonies. In recent months, Ethiopian officials have increased efforts to secure the return of looted artifacts and manuscripts from museums, personal collections and government institutions across Britain, including valuable items taken in the 1860s after battles in northern Ethiopia, Yonas said.

British citizen Mark Walker, at right, returns two bronzes to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, during a ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2014. Walker's grandfather was involved in a 1897 raid during which British forces looted thousands of artworks and artifacts. (Kelvin Ikpea/AFP/Getty Images)

In Nigeria, a group of bronze casters over the years has strongly supported calls for the return of artifacts taken from the Palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 when the British raided it. The group still uses their forefathers' centuries-old skills to produce bronze works in Igun Street, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eric Osamudiamen Ogbemudia, secretary of the Igun Bronze Casters Union in Benin City, said: "It was never the intention of our fathers to give these works to the British. It is important that we get them back so as to see what our ancestors left behind."

Ogbemudia warned the new French report should not remain just a "recommendation merely to make Africans to calm down.

"Let us see the action."

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