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Returning African Artwork Home

Returning African Artwork Home

During the colonization of many African countries, millions of people lost their lives, became slaves, and thousands of pieces of African artwork were stolen and taken to Europe. Today, these stolen pieces of artwork can be seen in museums all over Europe, including the following:

  • Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium has 180,000 pieces
  • Humboldt Forum in Germany has 75,000 pieces
  • Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in France has 70,000 pieces
  • British Museum in London has 69,000 pieces
  • Weltmuseum of Vienna in Austria has 37,000 pieces

Because valuable artworks carry so much history, culture, and identity for African people, the continent of Africa is uniting and demanding that they are returned to its countries of origin. 

Who Should The Art Belong Too?

One question that is in the constant debate is who should the African artwork belong too? On the one hand, many believe that the Africans who created the art should own it. But many Europeans feel that the artwork needs to be in the care of European museums where they have long been displayed. This debate is nothing new and has been in question since the era of African independence five decades ago.

The Benin Bronzes
One of the most famous cases is that of Benin bronze artworks, which were stolen from the country in 1897 and distributed to various museums and private collections across Europe. Unlike any other African artwork, the bronze pieces made African art visible to Europeans and ignited widespread interest by artists, students, and the public. For the people of Benin, these pieces are more than artwork, but rather a bit of the people’s ancestry history. Keeping it in Europe robs the people of Benin part of themselves.

The Turning Point For African Artwork In Europe
Using the Benin bronzes as a prime example, a group of European museum curators and officials from Nigeria have been working on plans to return the artwork to the African cities from which they were taken from centuries ago. The team has been working together since 2010, but the agreement is that the artwork will be sent back to Africa on loan. 

A second French government-commissioned report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy was produced in 2018. The report called for the art stolen from Africa to be returned as most of it was looted by European colonial powers, stolen or acquired in a wrong way. Unfortunately, since the report was released, nothing has been returned. Still, a $15 million-funded four-year initiative by George Soros’ Open Society hopes to move the process of returning the artwork forward.

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