“Over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron publicly announced France’s intention to begin the restitution of African material culture back to Africa. After centuries of colonization going widely unacknowledged by France, this announcement was surprising to both France and the communities affected by French colonization.
Since then, some pieces have been returned to their places of origin. But far more still sit in Western museums, removed from their context and communities.
Here are two examples of looted objects from Benin and Mali held by the Musee du Quai Branly. One has been restituted, the other has not.
Half-man half-bird royal statue of King Ghézo:
attributed to the Donvide workshop or Sossa Dede, Akati workshop.
Fon people, Benin, Abomey. Second half of the 19th century, wood, pigments, iron.
Once coated with magical substances, this statue protects warriors. One of a set of three, these hybrid figures, half-man half-animal, bear the emblems of the kings: the cardinal with its flame-red feathers for King Ghézo, the lion for Glélé, and the shark for Béhanzin.
Restituted in November 2021, 129 years out of context.
This very special object was made between 1850 and 1930 in the Segou region of modern day Mali. It is meant to be kept in a secret shrine and mitigates bad energy away from a community.
It is a composite, made of many different materials including beeswax, animal blood, wool, and wood. It gains power when seated in its birthplace, one of the many reasons being displaced is violent and harmful to this object, its life cycle, and the people it once protected.
This object as not been restituted.
Restitution Now Stencil
“PARIS STILL STEALS ART” refers to the pace of restitutions and the thousands of culturally significant objects being held outside of Africa, inaccessible to a large population of people to whom they rightfully belong to. The stencil’s message, sprayed on walls around Paris, aims to remind both tourists and locals that visiting museums and institutions is not a neutral act, and participating in tourism without acknowledging and criticizing the centuries of violence present in the “best museums in the world” should be questioned. By presenting a stencil, the negative, rather than the positive created by the stencil, I hope to remind viewers what is missing, what context many art objects have been removed from.
Street art is a way to decolonize art viewing. Street art is big and free to the public, there are no security checks at the door, or police stationed at the door looking at you sideways for not looking right, it is a community project. Murals are often a staple of a block, a meeting point. This site specificity is important to consider when viewing street art.
Street art and its fixture within society reminds me that somewhere, not too far off in reality or time, there exists an art market that revolves around the consent of the artist and the community they are invested in. A way of living off our art that is not based on a scarcity mindset, but centers art that is context dependent, deeply connected and present in its place of origin, free to grow roots and feed those who need it. To me, street art and graffiti is a promising path toward this vision. This stencil and its use around Paris, legally and extra legally, is an attempt at visualizing a society held accountable and made aware of injustices occurring within.
Citations Sarr, Felwine, and Bénédicte Savoy. The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics. MINISTÈRE DE LA CULTURE, Nov. 2018.