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For centuries, colonial powers from Europe took shameful turns to plunder the African continent, taking away its natural resources, enslaving its people, and looting its cultural heritage. One of the most significant losses of that inhumanity is the theft of African art and artifacts, which were taken away from their places of origin and displayed in museums and private collections across Europe. Today, there is an urgent need to right the wrongs of the past by repatriating these treasures back to Africa.
The scale of cultural theft from Africa is staggering. Over the centuries, countless cultural artifacts were taken away from the continent by colonial powers, including sculptures, masks, textiles, and other invaluable objects. These items were often looted during military expeditions or purchased at a fraction of their true value from local communities who had no choice but to sell them. Many of these objects were then taken to Europe, where they were displayed in museums and private collections, often without proper documentation or attribution.
Many of these ‘artifacts’ if modern slang is used, were plundered and transported to Europe where they now decorate many imperialist heritage sites as well as almost all European museums. In that sense, Europe is now the finest location to learn and experience the incredible art of Africa.
According to reasonable estimates, 80-90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is currently being held outside the continent. African icons held in Western museums and private collections are stories that distill understanding of the civilisations, cosmos, historical personalities, and expressions of beauty, as well as stories of encounter, trade, violence, and conquest.
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The impact of this cultural theft has been devastating for African societies. Not only were these objects taken away from their places of origin, but they were also robbed of their cultural and historical significance. The objects were often stripped of their original context and meaning, and instead, were presented as curiosities for European audiences. This erasure of African culture and history has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of African communities.
There is no doubt that the Europeans who mostly perpetrated this injustice were following a well-laid path that began perhaps during the Greek and Roman Empires which saw them taking away the booty of conquered people back to their own countries thus a substantial number of Egyptian ancient treasures ended up in Rome, Paris, and the United Kingdom. For instance, Napoleon transported the renowned Egyptian Obelix to Paris. Looted Italian artefacts are widely displayed in French museums. the current dispute surrounding the Elgin Marbles, which Lord Elgin stole from Greece and took to Britain, and the British Museum are very potent examples.
Today, there is a growing movement to repatriate these stolen treasures back to Africa. This movement is driven by a recognition that these objects belong to their places of origin and that their removal was a form of theft. It is also fueled by a desire to reconnect with African heritage and restore a sense of dignity and agency to African societies.
These objects ought to be returned because they are of great artistic, religious, cultural, sacred, and economic value. There have been several loud calls for their return from the moment they were looted, often in violent encounters. It is on record that many of their owners fought bloody wars to seek their immediate repatriation.
The advent of democracy has played a big role in instigating these conversations and a new demand that all these looted or stolen or bought artifacts now adorning Europe should return to their places of origin have gotten to the front burners. The fight to bring back iconic Benin, Ife, Lokoja, Igboukwu, and a host of other places to Nigeria shows very good examples of where this is happening. It is difficult to question the genuine intentions of those in support of this action. Good African art should be located in Africa! In fact, with the advent of 3D printing, it is now possible to make copies of the originals that can be displayed in European museums while the originals return to their country of origin.
There have been some notable successes in recent years. For instance, in 2018, France returned 26 looted artifacts to Benin, including a royal throne taken by French troops in 1892. Similarly, in 2020, Germany returned a 15th-century stone cross to Namibia, which had been taken by German colonisers in 1893. These repatriations are important steps in acknowledging the harm caused by colonialism and in restoring stolen cultural heritage to its rightful owners.
However, there is still much work to be done. Many museums and private collections in Europe still hold vast collections of African art and artifacts, and there is often resistance to repatriation. Some argue that these objects are part of world heritage and should be accessible to all, while others worry that repatriation will set a precedent for the return of other cultural objects taken during colonialism.
But these arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. The fact is that these objects were taken without consent or compensation, and their removal has caused immense harm to African societies. Repatriation is not only a matter of justice but also a recognition of the importance of cultural heritage to the identity and well-being of communities.
It is time for Europe to take responsibility for its role in the theft of African cultural heritage and to return these treasures to their rightful owners. This will require a shift in mindset from viewing these objects as mere commodities to recognizing their cultural and historical significance. It will also require a willingness to engage in dialogue with African communities and to work collaboratively to ensure that repatriation is done in a way that respects the integrity of the objects and their places of origin.
The return of African icons, both cultural and human, looted during the periods of colonialism, empire, and slavery, it is essential for the world to revisit and re-engage with these important aspects of African history, ideas, personalities, and aesthetics. The icons are the naissance of the African Union’s 2063 renaissance agenda.
Ultimately, the return of stolen cultural heritage is not just a matter of righting past wrongs. It is justice. It is humanity. It is restitution. It is repentance. It is about ending colonialism and accepting that subjects are not free from the shackles of oppression. The West can no longer afford to blame African nations for being undeveloped when is still in possession of her identity which was violently taken away from her in exchange for religion and what was deceptively described as civilisation!