Much of priceless African art still lies in Western museums, especially in Europe. The arguments against returning them increasingly sound bogus. The West must start returning African art to Africa.
No one can deny the effective soft power of ancient art. Centuries’-old artifacts will be researched, analyzed in books, documented in films and admired by private collectors, museums and populations across different cultures and time. Soft power the ability to seduce rather than coerce brings profits in tourism, diplomacy and politics. It shapes the preferences of civilizations regarding values and morals. Art and entertainment are two of its most efficient tools.
Africa, the birthplace of mankind, is home to millions of ancient artifacts admired by the whole planet and coveted by museums and private collectors all around the world. But Africa itself rarely profits from the source of its own soft power. For centuries, its art has been stolen and sold abroad, leaving African museums and galleries with very few sometimes none of the essential elements of soft power to seduce other nations.
However, a growing movement is reversing centuries-long,steady, outward flow of ancient African art towards other horizons. Last January, an ancient wooden sarcophagus, displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, was returned to Egypt after US specialists determined it had been looted years ago. This is just one of the 5300 stolen artifacts that were retuned to Cairo since 2021. A “Head of a King” or “Oba” dated from 1700 was part of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum collection for more than 70 years and it was returned to Nigeria, along with 31 other cultural artifacts. Also in the US, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art returned 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria in late October, stolen in a British raid in 1897.
Last November, the Horniman Museum in London returned six artifacts looted by British troops 125 years ago from a place in Benin, now Nigeria. Of these six, two were 16th century bronze plaques ransacked from the royal palace in 1897, when British forces sacked and burned the kingdom. The return put pressure on the British Museum to return over 900 objects, the largest collection of ancient African art in the world. The British Museum argues that the British Museum Act of 1963 and the Heritage Act of 1983 prevent it from returning the artifacts .
In contrast, Germany signed an agreement with Nigeria in 2022 to return 1,100 metal plaques and sculptures from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, mostly taken by British forces and sold to 20 museums around Germany. The country will also return a female figure known as Ngonnso to the kingdom of Nso, in northwestern Cameroon. A colonial officer took it and donated it to Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1903. The figure’s presence in Berlin provoked a civic initiative called “Bring Back Ngonnso,” with locals claiming that they have suffered multiple misfortunes since the statue was brought to their city.
The Fight For Ownership of African Art
Do national laws prevent countries from returning artifacts to their homeland? Probably not. Tourists and international communities are increasingly rejecting the idea that museums in developed countries should still be allowed to profit from other peoples’ and other nations’ ancient art. In fact, the longer those museums keep these artifacts, the less they become attractive as a soft power tool. Instead of seducing visitors, they may even drive them away.
Some accounts say that over half a million cultural artifacts originated in Africa are located in Europe. Countries like Belgium must now review all colonial-era acquisitions from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as Bénédicte Savoy argues in her book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, the movement began in the 1960s, when many African nations declared independence. It faded in the 1980s when European museums ignored these demands. Appeals by the likes of Ahmadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the then director-general of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), had no effect. In 1978, the UNESCO boss said that “everything which has been taken away (…) bore witness to a history of a culture and of a nation whose spirit they perpetuated and renewed.”
The resistance to the return of ancient art to Africa may cause damage beyond the walls of European museums. In her book, Savoy reminds readers that some European countries were receptive to the idea of restitution during the Cold War. They wanted to use both hard power and soft power to improve relations with African countries. Returning art was a good way to increase the latter.
In the 21st century, those efforts may be needed more than ever. Europe and the US have been trying to strengthen commercial and political ties with Africa in an effort to counter the increasing influence of China. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the return of 26 pieces, including sculptures and other artifacts, to the Republic of Benin. This West African nation had formerly been a colony of France. Later, the French press argued that this gesture may not be enough. It expressed the current public opinion that France should return other artifacts to Africa, including priceless antiques from venerated museums like the Louvre.
Art Coming Home
Are there any arguments that justify European museums not returning Africa’s ancient art? One argument maintains that this would lead to a loss of cultural heritage. Museums would have poorer collections, making it more difficult for people to get cultural exposure and education. Another argument holds that European museums are safer places for ancient artifacts than unstable African countries. Many of these countries do not have proper storage conditions for artifacts. Many Africans find this argument ridiculous. Nigerian art historian, Chika Okeke-Agulu said that it reminds him of a “thief demanding the construction of a secure facility before returning a stolen BMW.”
The arguments for returning ancient African art are not just rhetorical. First, new museums have been constructed in Africa. They highlight the African drive to bring their artifacts home. These African nations also want to increase their soft power, attract more tourists and earn revenues. After a series of delays, Egypt will finally inaugurate the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This museum will cover 50 hectares and house over 100,000 objects, including artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Second, returned artifacts increase a nation’s self-esteem. When France returned the Dahomey statues to Benin, a parade attracted thousands to see the sculptures at a free exhibition installed at the presidential palace in Cotonou. These celebrations and the display of cultural artifacts in the land of their origins boost national pride, identity and confidence.
Finally and importantly, returned artifacts stimulate investment in a nation’s cultural life. Benin City in Nigeria is building a new museum complex to display the repatriated art from the West. The museum’s promoters hope that this new museum will make Benin City a global destination. New hotels and businesses to serve tourists will create jobs and stimulate the local economy.
If this movement continues, we may see priceless works of art return home. The Nefertiti Bust (1345 BC) in Neues Museum in Berlin, the Rosetta Stone (196 BC) in the British Museum and many others might soon return to Africa. Of course, there is a chance this might never happen. We can’t know the future yet. However, the time for Africa’s ancient art to return to its homeland, increase the continent’s soft power and stimulate its economy has arrived.