Politics on Art: The Repatriation of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Culture

Until around 1960, colonization allowed European cultural institutions and governments to illegally traffic sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural property. This not only deprived several African nations from accessing their own cultural heritage, but in the case of Nigeria, also led to the growing demand for corrective measurements, such as the Benin Royal Museum in Nigeria’s Edo State.

Last year, art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr presented French President Emmanuel Macron with a report for the repatriation of African colonial-era artifacts. The report’s goal is for French institutions and private collectors to, in a period of five years, return all the looted cultural items to their corresponding places of origin, thus providing institutions like the Benin Royal Museum with the collection they have been lacking. However, as of April 2019, only twenty-six artifacts have been given back to Benin while other countries’ requests have been continuously ignored by French and British authorities.

Macron wants to return looted art by 2023 but is making little progress due to French law.

As stated by Sarr and Savoy, “restituting objects is a means; the end is to liberate thinking”.¹ Restitutions not only act as “a partial salvation for the injustices of the past,” more importantly, they help to decolonize the Western modus operandi.² Siddhartha Mitter, the Art in America and New York Times contributor, summarizes restitution policy by stating how one simply “cannot have a continent deprived to this extent of the testimonials of its past and its artistic genius”.³ Nations like Nigeria are urging for imperative policy changes as well as the creation of a new sharing economy to allow those who have lost so much of their history to finally reclaim it. Assisting in the creation and enforcement of said solutions should be a global concern being led by Western nations. Countries such as France, England, Germany, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands, and the United States, who have engaged in brutal injustices, violent conquests, wars, and coerced purchases against the Africans in order for the dominant Eurocentric perspective to prevail, should be the ones leading these efforts in the spirit of reparations.

Restitutions are part of a global political issue and it’s every Western nation’s responsibility to support them. Initiatives such as the sanctioning of institutions that do not return stolen antiquities should be encouraged by establishments worldwide. Other suggested initiatives include a “cultural co-operation” between the affected African nations and the organizations with African artifacts and religious artifacts in their permanent collections.⁴ However, this will require the Western organizations to provide the necessary resources for transporting, handling, and caring for the artifacts while they are on loan. The possible logistic issues here lead to the most recent option: virtual reality. Once the misappropriated artifacts are returned, Western museums and could use VR technology as a great way to promote new African museums, such as the Benin Royal Museum, while also continuing to expose their viewers to these historic pieces.

As one can see, the restitution of historic African pieces is becoming increasingly vital for Africa’s authentic cultural preservation. At the moment, nations like Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Benin are urging for imperative policy changes as well as the creation of a new sharing economy in order for those who have lost so much of their history to finally be able to reclaim it. Only then will their identity and cultural heritage be structured by Africans and truly decolonized.


1: Siddhartha Mitter, “Addressing Returns,” Art in America, March 2019, 24.

2: Alexander Herman, “The Eye of the Beholder: How We Return Art to Its Rightful Place; A New Report Commissioned by the French Government on the Restitution of African Art and Artifacts Is Smashing the Quaint and Tranquil World of Ethnographic and Anthropological Museology.,” Globe & Mail, December 1, 2018, , accessed April 7, 2019, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A563951747/OVIC?u=nysl_me_fordham&sid=OVIC&xid=2a04f23a.

3: Siddhartha Mitter, “Addressing Returns,” Art in America, March 2019, 23.

4: Folarin Shyllon, “Restitution of Antiquities to Sub-Saharan Africa: The Booty and Captivity: A Study of Some of the Unsuccessful Efforts to Retrieve Cultural Objects Purloined in the Age of Imperialism in Africa,” Art Antiquity & Law 20 (2015): 379, accessed April 7, 2019, HeinOnline.

Originally published at https://medium.com on May 1, 2019.

College graduate based in Panama City. I write about contemporary art and its intersection with culture, technology, and digital trends.

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