For decades, African nations have fought for the return of countless works of art stolen during the colonial era and placed in Western museums. Shortly after 1960, when 18 former colonies in Africa gained independence, a movement to pursue repatriation was spearheaded by African intellectual and political classes.
Drawing on her new book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art, art historian Bénédicte Savoy reveals this largely unknown but deeply important history. She 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. In the mid-1980s, African nations enacted the first laws focusing on the protection of their cultural heritage.
Savoy is in conversation with Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor in the departments of French and of Philosophy and the director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, provides a brief comment on the Smithsonian’s plan to return some of its collection to Africa.