Other Western countries, such as Britain, are yet to take the same steps
France’s President Macron has announced that some African artworks in French museums will be returned to their countries of origin, after consulting experts who recommended the action. The pieces in question are 26 thrones and statues, displayed in the Quai Branly museum, that were taken from what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey, in 1892.
The president commissioned a panel of experts to consult on the issue and they presented their findings on Friday. Afterwards, he said that the statues should be returned “without delay” (although Benin did officially ask for them to be returned years ago) and indicated that these 26 artworks were just the beginning.
The decision is obviously a step in the right direction towards correcting the apparent cultural thefts of Western countries during colonial rule in Africa, and it doesn’t necessarily mean European visitors will be any less able to see these kinds of art, either. The Elysee palace say that Macron “hopes that all possible circulation of these works is considered: returns but also exhibitions, loans, further cooperation”.
Ousmane Aledji, director of Benin’s Artisttik Africa expressed a similar sentiment, too, in a statement to the AFP, saying he saw the return as a pleasing “new form of cultural exchange”.
This particular return of Benin’s artworks doesn’t, however, mean there isn’t still a long journey towards the wider restitution of African artworks. The experts’ report showed that most of the Quai Branly’s Africa exhibition was obtained under some duress – that’s around 46,000 pieces. And there’s also all of the other Western countries who looted art during colonial campaigns.
As Labour’s Diane Abbott pointed out on Twitter, Britain has avoided addressing the issue of cultural theft. Now, following the French decision, “all eyes turn to the British Museum,” she writes.