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Following the release of France’s landmark restitution study last week, the political foosball of restitution requests has pinged across the African continent as more nations advocate for the return of ancient stolen artifacts. Senegal and the Ivory Coast have made some of the first official announcements about their intention to request the return of colonial-looted objects from French collections.
“We are ready to find solutions with France, but if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000,” remarked Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, on Tuesday, November 27, at a press conference in Dakar to announce the opening of the Musée des civilisations noires in early December.
The controversial study’s release in France spells good fortunes for Senegal’s president Macky Sal, who is currently running for reelection. Initially proposed by the country’s first president Leopold Sedar Senghor, the museum’s completion will be a signature accomplishment for Sal’s administration. It is also emblematic of the African continent’s pivot toward Chinese investment over the last 15 years. The state-of-the-art facilities are predominantly funded by a $20 million investment by China. In fact, China is the largest source of investment in Senegal.
Senegal’s intention of full restitution grinds against the hopes of the report’s authors, art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, who had declared that their study would not “empty the [French] museums’ galleries to fill those in Africa.”
Speaking with BBC, Senegal’s culture minister said that they’ve already asked the French government to return more than 100 artifacts, saying that “every piece from Senegal is in France.”
(The African country with the most artworks in French collections is Chad, according to the BBC.)
Responding to Senegal’s restitution requests, Stéphane Martin, director of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, which owns the majority of France’s artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa, tells The Art Newspaper that he is “disappointed” by the report, which “makes museums hostage to the suffering created by colonialism.”
One day after Senegal’s announcement, the Ivory Coast made similar overtures to France, saying that it would request the return of 100 objects from the European country. A government spokesperson, Sidi Touré, said in a statement that the Musée des civilisations in Abidjan had selected the works and was “ready to display them” upon return. The museum’s director Silvie Memel Kassi mentioned that the “first item on the list” is a ceremonial drum from the Tchaman community living in the Ebrie laguna. In her comments, Kassi also mentioned that her country is ready for a “negotiation and cultural cooperation with France and other countries.”
French president Emmanuel Macron now finds himself under increasing pressure from all sides of the restitution controversy to sort out drama that appears from the outside to be a self-inflicted wound. But with an inflexible legal code preventing him from single-handedly restituting art back from Africa, he must rely on the goodwill of a hostile parliament unwilling to accommodate many of the president’s policy goals. The eagerness of African countries like Senegal and the Ivory Coast to regain their stolen artifacts also indicates that they may be unwilling to follow the longer diplomacy route Macron had hoped for with his planned Euro-African summit next year. Waiting centuries for the return of these looted objects to the continent, African countries currently appear unwilling to play by France’s long game.