Africa’s Looted Treasures: Experts Call on Brussels to Devise a European Framework on Art Repatriation

Written by | Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Last summer, the Humboldt Forum opened in Berlin, to showcase art from outside Europe. But attempts to display various looted artifacts have repeatedly led to a public outcry and requests from several African countries to have those returned to their places of origin. This trend points to the increasing geopolitical importance of Europe’s colonial past – a past that until now most European leaders were content to ignore or brush aside. As some European countries, such as Germany and France, start returning looted art to former colonies, experts call for EU guidelines to “harmonize” and support the restitution of cultural objects to African museums. The push for the return of art objects stolen during colonialism has become more widespread in recent years due to the renewed attention on Europe’s colonial past.
The Humboldt Forum debacle is part of a pattern of avoidable and self-defeating blunders by European leaders dealing with Africa. The discussions on art repatriation were further encouraged by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. France started talks on art restitution in 2017 after Macron promised to return artifacts to Benin, after which some 26 of these objects looted during a siege in the 19th century were sent back to the small African country in autumn 2021. However, according to a 2018 report, up to 90,000 African artworks are stored in French museums, while around 90% of African cultural heritage remains outside the continent. A handful of other EU countries are increasingly active on the issue, like Germany, which is preparing to return some Beninese sculptures later this year.
But not all former colonial powers are keen to engage, including Portugal, whose National Assembly voted in 2020 against a bill that sought to return works of art to former colonies. “The main obstacle [to art restitution] is the lack of political will to do so, to engage with Europe’s colonial legacy,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, professor at the University of Hamburg. The restitution of cultural objects currently falls under the member states’ competence and is a matter which the EU does not interfere with, a European Commission spokesperson recently explained. However, experts and MEPs are increasingly calling on the Commission to implement a European framework on art repatriation. “Giving back works of art is not only about giving back to a country their own material property,” says MEP Salima Yenbou, a rapporteur of a report calling for European guidelines on looted art restitution, which should be voted on in the plenary next March. “It’s about giving them back their own cultural identity. It’s about drawing back the culture that our predecessors shamefully tried to erase.”

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