“Return? Africa in search of its masterpieces ”, on Arte.tv: European museums populated with stolen works


“We were stripped”, notes Gabin Djimassé, a Beninese historian. He could add “And massacred”, because the colonizations of the African continent were so many wars. The soldiers will be the first to “collect” the objects, closely followed by missionaries, formidable bargain hunters, and, later, by ethnologists. The famous Marcel Griaule, by himself, will take away in 1933 nearly 3,500 objects from the Dogon country (region of Mali). They enriched the collections of the Trocadéro Museum, opened in 1938.

The Europeans built very early buildings intended to receive the parts stolen or acquired under questionable conditions. The Berlin Museum of Ethnography was inaugurated in 1873. The British Museum, a century before. That of Tervuren, near Brussels, dates from 1908.

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The discovery of these works by Westerners has certainly turned the history of modern art upside down, but they are essentially ill-gotten goods, or too often in questionable conditions. When the collection of human remains is added, the odious becomes horror.

Some 6,000 bodies are kept in museums in Cologne, says curator Nanette Snoep, who does not hide her disgust. And how can we not share it in the face of the story of Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”, kidnapped in South Africa, exposed in a cage in London, prostitute in Paris… When she died in 1815, she was dissected by Cuvier. Preserved at the Trocadéro, his remains were not returned to his native country until 2002.

Pandora’s box

On November 28, 2017, President Macron delivered a speech in Ouagadougou in which he hoped that “Within five years the conditions will be met for temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage in Africa”. The art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the academic Felwine Sarr wrote a report in this direction and it is now done – in part: the Quai Branly Museum returns 26 pieces to Benin, it preserves… 3 000.

Read also Article reserved for our subscribers The restitution of works to Africa is more a matter of geopolitics than a love of art

All of this is beautifully told in Nora Philippe’s documentary. We could reproach him for his partiality: opponents of renditions are rarely consulted, with the exception of a few British conservatives with poor speeches and art dealers who their profession seems to automatically disqualify. However, the reality is more complex, the debates richer, and these first renditions may have opened a Pandora’s box.

So, for example, our Belgian friends have been calling for decades for the return of Triumph of Judas Maccabee, a Rubens stolen in Tournai by French troops in 1794. It is currently deposited in the Musée d’arts de Nantes. They are objected to the principle of inalienability, now violated, but also that at the time of the looting Belgium did not yet exist in Tournai, though.

Restore? Africa in search of its masterpieces, documentary by Nora Philippe (France, 2021, 1 h 22 min). On Arte.tv until April 22, 2022.

We want to thank the author of this short article for this outstanding material

“Return? Africa in search of its masterpieces ”, on Arte.tv: European museums populated with stolen works