For decades, African nations have fought for the return of countless works of art stolen during the colonial era and placed in Western museums. In Africa’s Struggle for Its Art, Bénédicte Savoy brings to light this largely unknown but deeply important history. One of the world’s foremost experts on restitution and cultural heritage, Savoy investigates extensive, previously unpublished sources to reveal that the roots of the struggle extend much further back than prominent recent debates indicate, and that these efforts were covered up by myriad opponents.
Shortly after 1960, when eighteen former colonies in Africa gained independence, a movement to pursue repatriation was spearheaded by African intellectual and political classes. Savoy looks at pivotal events, including the watershed speech delivered at the UN General Assembly by Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko, which started the debate regarding restitution of colonial-era assets and resulted in the first UN resolution on the subject. She examines how German museums tried to withhold information about their inventory and how the British Parliament failed to pass a proposed amendment to the British Museum Act, which protected the country’s collections. Savoy concludes in the mid-1980s, when African nations enacted the first laws focusing on the protection of their cultural heritage.
Making the case for why restitution is essential to any future relationship between African countries and the West, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art will shape conversations around these crucial issues for years to come.
Awards and Recognition
- A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
"[A] ground-breaking book."—Dan Hicks, Hyperallergic
"A fascinating account of lies and disinformation from European institutions in the debate against restitution. . . . Savoy’s deeply researched book marks a shift in tone from the many articles written recently on the African restitution debate . . . that erase African voices, focusing instead on the efforts of European intellectuals."—Nosmot Gbadamosi, Foreign Policy
"A closely observed look at the resistance of European museums to repatriate artwork looted from Africa during the colonial era. . . . A thoughtful study in the ethics of art collection."—Kirkus Reviews
"An incisive and eye-opening history of the first restitution debates that developed from the mid-1960s through to the mid-80s."—J.J Charlesworth, Art Review
"An incisive perspective."—Tobias Carroll, Inside Hook
"Savoy has . . . made a significant move towards the final decolonisation of European museums and impacting the African nations into not only setting up new museums but also ratifying laws that focus on the protection of their cultural heritage. Hopefully, her book will also influence and shape the larger global conversations on the subject to counter the ridiculous argument of the western nations that such art objects now form an integral part of their own heritage."—Shelley Walia, Frontline
"Africa’s Struggle for Its Art, a highly readable and meticulously researched overview of the cultural-restitution debate in Europe. . . a fascinating and highly recommended read for anyone interested in an often overlooked dynamic that continues to influence North–South relations."—Survival
“Impressive, well-researched, and beautifully written, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art looks at the long march for the return of artistic treasures to the African continent. This is an instant classic, a masterpiece. There is clearly a need to understand the history of Africa’s demand for the repatriation of its art, and that need is fully satisfied here."—Souleymane Bachir Diagne, author of African Art as Philosophy
“A prequel to present debates on restitution, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art deftly details the tenacity of Africans who demanded the return of cultural property and the persistence of European arguments against it. Bénédicte Savoy’s text is not only a history, but also a forceful directive to Europe to finish the project of repatriation. This is a must-read for anyone who takes seriously the urgency of returning Africa’s stolen patrimony.”—Steven Nelson, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
“The current debate about the fate of African art looted by Europeans is not as new as it may seem. In this book, Bénédicte Savoy masterfully combines powerful historical and material sources to show its origins and long history of reluctance, and the accompanying story of a troubling debate failing to become action.”—Ittai Weinryb, author of The Bronze Object in the Middle Ages
“Bénédicte Savoy adds a new and unexpected perspective to the current restitution debate. She reminds us that the quest for the return of African cultural objects goes back much farther than commonly purported and that decades-old arguments for restitution, similar to ones made today, were repeatedly stifled.”—Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum–World Cultures and Arts (MARKK) Hamburg