Send It Back!

Chronicling the African Art Repatriation Debate

May 10, 2023 By: Adenike Cosgrove

What is art, what is heritage, what is culture, and who owns them? This is the debate that has raged for many years about the arts of Africa—the debate about which nation may lay claim to historical works created by Africans but pillaged during wars and colonisation. Should yesterday’s guardians be tomorrow’s and if not, whose responsibility is it to train African curators, historians and conservators who will be tasked with maintaining these works for many generations to come?

November 2017 saw French President, Emmanuel Macron call for the “provisional or permanent return of African cultural heritage to Africa“, adding that “it is unacceptable that a large part of this heritage is kept in France or in private European collections and museums.” One year on, and a paper drafted for President Macron’s consideration goes further by recommending the full restitution by French museums of works in their collections which were taken “without consent” from former African colonies.

This heated debate shows no signs of abating. As the topic rages on, to keep track of developments in the restitution and repatriation of looted African artworks and cultural artefacts, we chronicle the timeline of events that have and continue to shape the question: ‘should Western museums send back looted African art?’

There are more questions than answers at this point, so this will remain a living, breathing article. If we’ve missed anything, please do get in touch.

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