Colonial Art Thefts

Racism is not only a problem in the US, the restitution of art to former colonies in Africa reminds us it’s been widespread for centuries.  African art and treasures have ended up in European museums for many to visit and enjoy, but the problem is how they got there, through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections or taken without sufficient compensation. Colonial powers had not much respect for the indigenous traditions and cultures they encountered, nevertheless they managed to realize the importance and unique beauty of the art, art which we now know inspired artists such as Picasso and Matissse.  Unlike Western art African art is part and parcel of the culture and of everyday life, masks were not ornamental, for example, but part of important ritual practices. In November 2018 France’s President asked for a report on the restitution of African Art, but since there has been no movement to follow through on the recommendations or to return the art. Both France and the UK, the two major colonial powers in the continent have done little to address the resistance returning these pieces has engendered. It’s a legal issue, a political and cultural one, but it’s also a moral and an ethical one. Part of the problem is that often museums themselves fear that restitution would deplete their collection, which considering they only exhibit a portion of it at a time may not be valid.  Another contributing factor is that African nations do not always have the necessary museums, which they are trying to remedy. Unchanged racist attitudes have made the debate contentious, nevertheless African Art pieces not properly acquired need to be returned.

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