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The Dubious Politics of Art Restitution

The French President’s recent comments hint at a dubious politics: using art restitution as a stopgap to France’s postcolonial responsibilities.

When France’s President Emmanuel Macron recently said he wanted to see the return of African artefacts and artworks currently housed in French museums to their respective nations on a ‘temporary or permanent’ basis, much of the public discourse focused on the logistics of such a task. Which items would be returned? To where exactly? When? (And what might ‘temporary’ restitution mean – if there can even be such a thing?)

While practicalities are one facet to be addressed after such a statement, it’s Macron’s use of art as a political bargaining chip that will have the most lasting effects – not just on Franco-African relations but on the understanding of how art can be wielded for political means, especially as a way to obfuscate or rewrite history.

In his speech of 28 November, given at the University of Ougadougou in Burkina Faso, Macron did not directly mention France’s continued presence in its former colony. Since 2014, about 3,000 French troops have been indefinitely stationed in Africa’s Sahel region – which includes Burkina Faso as well as parts of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – as a part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent operation. To many, it’s an unwelcome presence that smacks of neocolonialism, and it’s a move that brought young protestors out en masse to Macron’s speech, wearing t-shirts that said ‘French military out of Burkina’ and ‘Down with new-colonialism.’ Hours before Macron’s arrival in the West African nation, a grenade was thrown at French soldiers, injuring three civilians. Nonetheless, Macron used his speech to discuss his new restitution plan. ‘I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,’ Macron said. ‘There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional.’

Protecting Statuette, Mambila population, Donga Valley, Nigeria, held in the collection of Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On the face of it, Macron’s pledge represents genuine progress. His statement breaks with a French legal tradition established by the edict of Moulins in 1566, in which ‘the royal domain’ was given over to ‘the public domain’ and made everything held within ‘inalienable.’ That is, what was once plundered by kings and later by colonizers became the property of the French public and would not be returned to its place of origin. The argument in favour of maintaining the edict is a relatively weak one, hard as some might try to force it. ‘It is a very bad signal to send to all the countries that think they can ask for the restitution of goods that, in their view, have been unlawfully obtained,’ Yves-Bernard Debie, a lawyer who specializes in cultural property, told The Art Newspaper. ‘There is no longer any reason that prohibits these countries from claiming their heritage from France.’

Of course, Debie’s argument is a poor one: yes, we stole from you; but don’t you dare try to ask for it back, especially not all at once. Macron’s denial of this sort of logic is therefore welcome but the reasoning behind his restitution plan is more insidious. ‘I haven’t come here to tell you what is France’s African policy because there no longer is one,’ Macron also said in his speech. ‘It’s a past that needs to pass.’ A past that needs to pass. By returning African artworks to their rightful countries (or ‘temporarily’ loaning them perhaps), Macron hopes to put an end to much of the tension that derives from France’s colonial history. The trouble is that it’s too simple a solution: Macron seems to be attempting to slide out of historical responsibility by using African artefacts and artworks as a symbolic stand-in for African culture so that the restitution of these comes to seem like a total return of culture and therefore a historical reset button as well.

 Jewel-like brooch and pendant in gold, Akan population, Ivory Coast, c.1890-1910, held in the collection of Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Using restitution as a way to paper over France’s dark history in Africa is to ultimately ignore France’s greater and manifold post-colonial responsibilities, which are still distressingly present in the modern day. There is still, for instance, rampant systemic racism in France that deserves explicit address by the president. 57% of French people think that many immigrants come to France ‘only to take advantage of social protection,’ according to a poll by the National Commission and Human Rights Consultative released earlier this year; in the same poll, 39% believed that ‘immigration is the main cause of insecurity.’ More recently, the far-right Front National ran on an anti-immigration platform for the presidency earlier this year that garnered more than a third of the national vote; and, at least observationally, even the notion of being ‘French-Algerian’ is still considered a dubious identity: one is either ‘French’ or ‘Algerian’ but not both. As much as the French call for ‘assimilation,’ even second- or third-generation African immigrants are not always viewed as sufficiently ‘French.’

Read the rest of the essay at Frieze.

Feature image via Reuters.

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