“FOR APPROXIMATELY SIX YEARS, a spectre has been haunting European museums,” began a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung news article in May 1979. That specter, which still haunts today, was the question—and eventually, the slow-moving process—of restitution that had recently been initiated by several African countries. The article explained that the issue evoked “extremely intense emotions” in European countries, whose ethnological museums were being accused of unjustly collecting African cultural artifacts. Taking stock of the struggle’s early trajectory almost half a century later, Bénédicte Savoy’s new book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, tracks a contentious discourse from the first calls for repatriation in 1965 up through an exhibition by Nigerian archaeologist Ekpo Eyo that traveled to Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum in 1985. The show was not a triumphant culmination—rather, in the 1980s, the debates fizzled out and all but “disappeared from collective memory.”
In the book, Savoy, a French art historian, defeatedly recalls a history of largely unsuccessful petitions and campaigns for plundered art objects. The book comes on the heels of the landmark 2018 report she co-authored with Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr. Known as the Sarr-Savoy Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Toward a New Relational Ethics, the project created a roadmap for public institutions in France, informing them how to create inventories of their archives and determine which items require repatriation. It was commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron following a 2017 speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in which he discussed tenuous historical French-African relations and charted a path for future French policy concerning the continent. Stating that he could not “accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France,” he pledged to create “the conditions . . . for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa” within five years. Africa’s Struggle for Its Art is a kind of prehistory to the Sarr-Savoy Report: it describes the foundational battles between newly independent African states and former colonial powers over artifacts acquired during the era of imperial conquest and rule, as well as the decades of African activism that made such a commission possible.
The volume is divided into sixteen chronological chapters, each representing one noteworthy year between 1965 and 1985. The “apex” of this discourse, Savoy says, took place between 1978 and 1982. The first chapter, 1965, begins with a polemic by Beninese poet-journalist Paulin Joachim titled “Give Us Back Negro Art.” Published in January of that year in Bingo, a Francophone magazine circulated in Paris and Dakar, it was the first widely circulated call for restitution. The 1960s witnessed mass decolonization on the African continent, including the United Nations’ adoption of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which committed the international body to supporting political and cultural self determination for newly independent states. The declaration was animated by the growing momentum of anti-colonial international developments around the world, including the Afro-Asian alliances at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955 and the First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists the following year. The latter group, considering the impact of colonialism on cultural heritage, sought to assert a Black consciousness that transcended national and ethnic identity.
The significance of some of the other bookmarked years is a little less clear, and the choppy chronology unfortunately disrupts the book’s ambitious framing—Savoy attempts to tell “the coherent story of postcolonial defeat,” but her story feels scattered. While she clearly and unequivocally supports repatriation, she presents a fairly dry, factual chronology rather than a forceful rallying cry that reflects the issue’s urgency and meaningfulness. Although the discourses—from African and European sides alike—broadly fall into the pattern of African request and subsequent European rejection, the book, which purports to narrate a continental struggle, primarily describes the activities of West African nations. The majority of its pages are devoted to Nigeria, a political and cultural powerhouse whose Benin Kingdom bronzes have become emblems of African repatriation struggles. The book’s hurried and purely factual summary focuses on the section of the continent that first gained independence, beginning with Ghana in 1957. Senegal and Nigeria followed suit three years later. Naturally, repatriation attempts by these three nations have a more substantial history than those of, for instance, Namibia, which gained independence from South Africa only in 1990 (and thus falls outside the book’s scope). It’s also true that Western museums have collected more art from West Africa than East. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel accurate to say Savoy’s book represents Africa as a whole.
The author’s narrow focus in the northern hemisphere is even more surprising, but also usefully revealing. Savoy writes that it is within the Federal Republic of Germany “that the debate was most intense . . . and most enduring, spanning museums, politics, administration, media, and television.” Though the most visible and more recent debates concern France and Britain, her account centers on Germany, as did activists in the 1960s through ’80s. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor in 1976 called the global ordeal a “German debate.” And though Savoy examines German museums for historical reasons, her focus is perhaps most compelling because of its implications in the present. While it’s true that Germany had far fewer colonies than Britain and France, and was a colonial power for only around three decades—facts often trotted out to deny culpability—the country was active in numerous plundering expeditions that went hand-in-hand with the foundation of the discipline of art history itself.
The book details dozens of instances of anti-Black racism, cultural imperialism, and condescension in Europe’s repeated rejections of repatriation requests. But its most damning revelations concern the roles that former Nazis played in German museums. Savoy’s prime example is Hermann Auer, a former physicist who faced difficulty finding work as a university lecturer after World War II owing to his membership in the National Socialist Party and other Nazi organizations. Eventually, in the 1950s, he landed a job as academic director of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, one of the world’s largest science and technology museums. Then in 1968 he became president of the German department of the International Committee of Museums. Ironically, the postwar policy barring former Nazi Party members from positions of power forced them to assimilate into seemingly benign roles in places like museums. A decade into his tenure, Auer penned a letter to the German ministry of the interior on the problem of restitution. His comments reflected the unintended consequences of West German denazification efforts and a narrowing view of Nazi racist ideology that neglects its anti-Black dimensions. Echoing his prewar views, Auer wrote that restitution debates were being driven by nations with “low material and economic potential” attempting to “consolidate their national importance,” and he accused them of misstating the means by which Europeans had obtained their treasures.
SAVOY CASTS THE RESTITUTION DEBATE as a story of political entities, with both colonizers and colonized endeavoring to narrate their own national saga. Regardless of country, context, or year, newly independent African states consistently positioned stolen artifacts as an invaluable part of their cultural histories—narratives they were scripting on their own for the first time. In his early manifesto, Joachim described “the battle for the recovery of our artworks” as integral to the formation of African futures.
In response, European states repeatedly unleashed a motley of rebuttals, several of which, in addition to outright lies about provenance (for example, Auer’s false claim that most of the African objects in Germany had been exported “after the ‘decolonization’ of these countries”), are still deployed today. The most common charge was that Africa lacks adequate storage facilities—though pro-restitution advocates rightfully point out the irony that colonial extraction (and then neoliberal austerity) bears the blame for most major infrastructural shortcomings on the continent. Another argument was that Europeans are simply superior stewards. In 1978, Wolfgang Klausewitz, then president of the German Museum Association, claimed that “most Third World countries” lacked any connections to their cultures and natural environments. This lack of faith that African states could, or want to, preserve their own cultural artifacts was repeated by a chorus of museological figures, including Gerhard Baer, director of the Museum of Ethnology and Swiss Museum of Folklore. He claimed, in 1979, that if the objects had not been brought to Europe, it is “certain” that they would “have long been destroyed, lost, and forgotten.”
In the book’s preface and epilogue, Savoy explicitly contrasts “European museums’ disavowal and arrogance” in the past with what she hopes will be a new era in institutional policy and curatorial practice in the present and future. While some major repatriation efforts have been initiated since 1985, the debate has not changed much at all. Last summer, the Humboldt Forum, a controversial institution that incorporates the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art, finally opened its doors to the public. Described as the German counterpart to the British Museum, the Humboldt Forum occupies the reconstructed Berlin Palace, the historical residence of German emperors and Prussian monarchs. Savoy resigned from the museum’s advisory board in 2017, citing a lack of transparency regarding the provenance of the permanent ethnological collection. She stated that without publicly acknowledging “how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” neither the Humboldt Forum nor any other ethnological museum should open. And in her book, she duly challenged narratives of Germany as somehow less guilty of violent plunder than Britain or France by challenging many of the state’s bogus claims of legitimate acquisition. In one instance, she quotes Friedrich Kussmaul, an anthropologist who, in the 1970s, claimed that the majority of West German museum holdings were acquired “under perfectly legitimate circumstances at the time” (emphasis mine) and that looting expeditions rarely occurred in German colonies, if they occurred at all. Yet “at the time”—during Germany’s brief period of colonial conquest from 1884 to 1915—museums and German military forces worked together to collect cultural objects and even human remains. Even before Germany formally established its colony in South West Africa (present day Namibia), officials at the Royal Museum of Ethnology (the ethnological collection now housed in the Humboldt Forum) instructed German naval forces to collect everything they could at the ports where they docked. In an 1897 letter from that period, the director of the Ethnological Museum admits that it was “quite difficult to obtain an object without using at least a little bit of force.”
Savoy is unwavering in her condemnation of the moral stain represented by the theft and hoarding of African artifacts. She calls “to incorporate the present restitution debate in the longue durée of historical processes,” including both African activism and the violence of colonial institutions, but throughout the book, a political energy is notably absent from her straightforward assembling of historical facts. Savoy has elsewhere been active and vocal in her criticism of the Humboldt Forum and other institutions. But she seems to draw a clear division between her work as a historian and material, anti-colonial transformations of museum institutions. In the statement accompanying her departure from the Humboldt Forum, she called for more adequate public acknowledgment of provenance, but stopped short of advocating repatriation, never mind reparations. Similarly, her book relegates engagements with the present to a mere four-page epilogue. It’s true that acknowledging wrongdoing and spotlighting long-denied historical facts are the necessary first steps to righting historical wrongs. But acknowledgment is not nearly enough, and can in fact obscure the urgency of material recompense.