African artworks held in French museums — richly carved thrones, doors to a royal kingdom, wooden statues imbued with spiritual meaning — may be heading back home to Africa at last.
French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to turn the page on France’s colonial past, received a report Friday on returning art looted from African lands.
From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums eagerly awaited the report by French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron himself.
It recommends that French museums give back works that were taken without consent, if African countries request them — and could increase pressure on museums elsewhere in Europe to follow suit.
The experts estimate that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts. Thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies. The museum wouldn’t immediately comment on the report.
Among disputed treasures in the Quai Branly are several works from the Dahomey kingdom, in today’s West African country of Benin: the metal-and-wood throne of 19th-century King Ghezo, the doors to the palace of Kign Gele, and imposing wooden statues.
The head of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Yonas Desta, said the report shows “a new era of thought” in Europe’s relations with Africa.
Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, told The Associated Press: “It’s entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks …. These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today.”
The report is just a first step. Challenges ahead include enforcing the report’s recommendations, especially if museums resist, and determining how objects were obtained and whom to give them to.