Shielding the Spirit of a Continent An Existential Argument for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

The struggle for the restitution of Africa’s artefacts from Western museums reflects the necessary undoing of imperial domination. It is not merely political but also existential—it is a fight for the spirit of Africa. 

In November 1964, during a United Kingdom parliamentary debate about plans to return Burma’s Mandalay regalia, the newly elected prime minister, Harold Wilson, received disapproving comments from John Tilney, a conservative member of parliament. A former under-secretary of state for commonwealth relations, Tilney conveyed antipathy to the decision to return Burmese items and further implied it would be ludicrous for the UK to also return the royal ornaments of the Asantehene, the monarch of the Asante people in Ghana. Such sentiments, fuelled by colonial apologia, grew as Africans increased efforts to decolonize their societies.  

Since the early years of post-colonial political independence on the African continent, European museums and governments have found ways to suppress the pleas of Africans for restitution. Reluctant to return stolen items, many have offered to loan the looted artworks to African countries. Such behaviour typifies the brazen audacity of European imperialists who enact large scale violence against people and proceed to determine stringent conditions for how the oppressed should conduct their affairs.  

In recent years, however, there has been a slight change in the attitudes of European states and museums towards calls from African governments and other cultural heritage stakeholders to return African artworks to their place of origin. In November 2017, during a speech in Ouagadougou, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, revealed that his government had drafted a five-year plan for the return of stolen African art to Africa. This announcement, along with a commissioned report produced in 2018 by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, sparked further debate about restitution.  

Some questioned the authenticity of Macron’s intentions and others viewed the unfolding events as an opportunity to revitalize the age-old reclamation movement across the African continent. In Nigeria, for example, there are growing efforts towards preparing for the return of cultural artefacts. The Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), designed by the Ghanaian-British architect, David Adjaye, and in collaboration with the British Museum, is currently undergoing construction and will house West African artworks including items belonging to the Kingdom of Benin. 

Yet, at the same time, there are African citizens who, to borrow the words of the Beninese philosopher, Paulin Hountondji, do not care for the return of these objects. Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), has argued that most Nigerians remain extremely apathetic towards the return of cultural artefacts from Europe to Nigeria. This claim is confirmed partly by a recent This Day opinion piece written by Ayodele Okunfolami, a self-described cultural activist, who has expressed displeasure about the recent decision made by the UK’s Horniman Museum to return 72 artefacts to Nigeria following pleas from the NCMM.  

According to Okunfolami, Nigeria is not worthy of receiving stolen artefacts because the country remains in a state of crisis. In fact, Okunfolami believes that these artefacts will be of better use to European economies because ‘the whites are so good in keeping their materials’ and, as a result, these artworks will be of no economic value to Nigerians. Okunfolami’s uncritical embrace of cultural commodification goes as far as suggesting that African cultural artefacts ought to be reproduced and transformed into toys for children. Beyond these imprudent remarks, it is clear from the This Day article that for Nigerian citizens like Okunfolami, the real needs of Nigerians include better governance, safer roads, and social security. Indeed, Nigeria is a country afflicted with various social challenges that each deserve targeted solutions, and the restitution of cultural artefacts may not solve Nigeria’s wicked problems. However, acknowledging this reality does not render the reclamation movement futile or worthless. 

RETHINKING THE UTILITY OF RECLAMATION 

It is important that we do not reduce the reclamation movement to a matter of economic utility—to do so would be to feed it to the ever-hungry behemoth that is capitalism. Instead, we should consider the movement’s value more broadly and delicately. In Saba Mahmood’s reflections on an urban women’s movement during the Egyptian Islamic revival, she refines the concept of agency, attaching spectral characteristics to it. Mahmood describes ‘agentival capacity’ as that which can involve the creation of progressive change as well as gradual steps toward restoring stability. Mahmood extends this further by claiming that agential action also entails ‘the capacity to endure, suffer, and persist’. This means it is possible for grand, instant transformations to emerge from social action but it is also possible for slow-moving, seemingly Sisyphean endeavours to be equally valid social contributions—the sociologist Asef Bayat calls this a ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary’. In a similar vein, it may benefit us to view utility as being spectral. At one extreme, the utility of a phenomenon may reflect a purely economic function—that is, being productive or profitable in material terms but, on the other hand, it may be more symbolic and embody a gradual unfolding of social goods. The reclamation of Africa’s cultural artefacts does not need to produce an all-encompassing solution to Africa’s material problems, nor should it be viewed as providing no social benefit at all. Glossing over its social value has the potential to impede decolonization efforts thus far. To better explain my argument, and more specifically uncover the value of the movement for restitution, I turn now to the question of art and why it is an indispensable element of society. 

UNDERSTANDING ART AS AN EXISTENTIAL NECESSITY

Philosophers of art have long discussed the value of art in society. The theories of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, for instance, are useful for understanding how and why the reclamation movement is essential for the existential security of African communities. In his 1950 essay titled ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Heidegger is less concerned about the aesthetic value of artworks and more with their ontological function and capacity to reveal existential truth. Art, according to Heidegger, reveals the truth of Dasein, also known as ‘being-in-the-world’. In his seminal work, Being and Time, Heidegger explains ‘Being’ as ‘that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood’. Being, Heidegger adds, ‘lies in the fact that something is, and in its Being as it is; in Reality; in presence-at-hand; in subsistence; in validity; in Dasein; in the “there is”.’  

The central point that could be lost in Heidegger’s convoluted characterization of Being is that Being reflects what it means to be human, to exist in the world. Through his much-needed exegesis of Heidegger’s writing, Hubert Dreyfus conceptualizes the truth of Being as a ‘style’, which can be understood as that which is familiar to a people, shapes their sensibilities, dispositions and identity, and informs their consciousness of their environment.  There are three ways art interacts with the ‘style’ of a world or culture. Dreyfus has summarized the three functions of art as: (1) manifesting, which is conveying the style or reality of a world to viewers outside of it; (2) articulating, which is to elucidate the style of a culture and enable people within that culture to understand themselves through cultivating a common appreciation of their culture; and finally (3) reconfiguring, which is reshaping a cultural style or changing it altogether.  

While I recognize the importance of the manifesting and reconfiguring qualities of art, I am more concerned here with the capacity of African art to articulate the style of African societies.  

Writing on the ability of the Ancient Greek temple to articulate the cultural style of the Greeks, Heidegger claims the infrastructure ‘gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves’. By acknowledging that African cultural artefacts embody a realm in which Africans can articulate their cultural style and, therefore, understand their being-in-the-world, we can better understand the need for the reclamation movement.  

Historically, the humanity of Africans has been challenged, undermined, or erased. The looting of African cultural artefacts is representative of this form of violence. European states and museums have attempted to hijack the style of African nations. Many Africans see themselves in their cultural artefacts and to hold them in detention is to corrupt their sense of self, to disrupt their being-in-the-world. Restitution, therefore, goes beyond simply returning and receiving looted items. It, more importantly, entails restoring the spirit of plundered nations. There lies the utility of African cultural heritage that Okunfolami and other critics of the reclamation movement overlook.  

A LIVING ART AND ITS REMEDIAL FUNCTIONS

To understand fully why this larger goal of restitution should be pursued, it is necessary to delve deeper into reasons why African art itself is so important. Like John Berger who problematized the commodification of art, I believe some artworks defy the logics of property and capital accumulation that have dominated art production and consumption in the global North. These works are not necessarily made to be captured, owned and gawked at by strangers. The value of such art, Berger argues, ‘resides in what it does, not in what it is. Many African cultural artefacts fall into this category of ‘living art’ as described by Suzanne Preston Blier.

In his book, The Gẹ̀lẹ̀d́ Spectacle, Babatunde Lawal documents the epistemological and ontological importance of gẹ̀lẹ̀d́ masks of the Yoruba people—some of which have been stored in the British Museum since 1942— and are used in ceremonies bearing the same name. Gẹ̀lẹ̀d́ is not just a type of mask or ceremony that has contributed to the rich cultural heritage of the Yorubas. It is a philosophy and social order with universal applicability. Gẹ̀lẹ̀d́ embodies the belief that human existence is most meaningful and productive when underpinned by social harmony. Closely tied to the gẹ̀lẹ̀d́ philosophy is the concept of Ìfgbọ́ntáayéṣe which Lawal defines as the use of ‘individual and collective wisdom (through the humanities and sciences) to ensure peace and concord on Earth’. These cultural artefacts and heritage are not produced merely for aesthetic purposes. They represent the religious systems and philosophical frameworks Yorubas have contributed to the world.  

The inability of some Africans to see the value of African cultural artefacts to their societies is an outcome of the epistemic violence unleashed on the African continent. As the Ghanaian archaeologist, Emmanuel Kofi Agorsah, explains, such violence will have included the forceful conversion of Africans to Christianity. At the onset of colonization, many Africans were made to destroy their cultural artefacts to prove their allegiance to the white man’s god while Europeans covertly looted some invaluable cultural artworks, displacing them to Europe. Returning these works is necessary for contextualizing them, for restoring their original value as the salt of rich, diverse communities and as didactic instruments reflecting the long-standing epistemic achievements of Africans. 

Understandably, not all traditional African art was created for religious purposes or with the intention to make philosophical claims. As Isidore Okpewho says, ‘those who look for religion or worldview behind everything in traditional art have often ignored the basic play interest of the artist’. Some sculptures were created with erotic themes in mind, speaking largely to hedonistic behaviours and practices in African communities. Certain figurative works of the Mahafaly people in Madagascar come to mind here: a wooden sculpture made in the early twentieth century, and later found in a private hoard in Paris, depicts two figures in a sexually intimate position.  

In Africa: The Art of a Continent, a collection of images and essays edited by Tom Phillips, we find that erotic Malagasy sculpture was initiated by the Sakalava people and later became a recurring motif in the art of other communities in Madagascar. Another example is of sexually explicit gold weights created by Akan people in Ghana. The archaeologist, Timothy Garrard, highlights the rarity of these objects in Akan culture; among thousands of gold weights made by the Akan, only a few displayed figures kissing or in sexual positions. Although Garrard was unable to uncover real reasons for the production of these erotic gold weights—some of which were looted in the nineteenth century by British forces in Kumasi—he argues that most Akan gold weights would have been made with specific proverbs in mind, including: ‘Ekwan ho twe, yedi no ahoohare (Roadside sex is indulged in hurriedly)’.  

In line with Nelson Foote’s characterization of (safe and uncoerced) sex as play, the themes of sex present in some traditional Malagasy and Akan artworks reveal the playful tendencies of African artists, which Okpewho sought to highlight. Eugen Fink, a phenomenologist and Heidegger enthusiast, describes play as ‘an essential element of [our] ontological makeup, a basic existential phenomenon’. Fink adds that play relies on ‘subjective imaginary elements’. Thus, these secular works, like their religious or spiritually charged counterparts, form an important element of African cultures. Contrary to Hegel’s claim in Lectures on the Philosophy of World History that Africans lack consciousness and subjectivity, these artworks highlight that Africans have always been able to exercise consciousness and play like everyone else. Both the philosophical and playful essences of traditional African art articulate the style of African communities. They show Africans that their history is suffused with light and creative freedom. Since the ontological function of these artefacts is most effective within their original contexts, dislocating these works ultimately undermines their cultural relevance. 

The politics surrounding the location of these artefacts is undergirded by tensions stemming from the fact that Africans have been robbed of their right to directly observe and enjoy evidence of their cultural contributions to the world. More so, Europeans have a history of stealing to build their own institutions and, thus, feel threatened by attempts to uncover the great extent to which these institutions are built on lies and theft.  

Kwame Anthony Appiah opens his 1995 essay titled, ‘Why Africa? Why Art?’, with an Akan proverb that underlines the importance of location in the reclamation debate: ‘Tenabea nyinaa nse (All dwelling-places are not alike)’. Any person who reflects critically and sensitively on the rampant violence of colonialism should come to the realization that the placement of African artefacts in Western museums does not and can never bear the same significance as the rightful placement of these works within African museums. If these artworks remain in Western museums, they will endure a perpetual dislocation and an unfulfilled capacity to remedy what Cresa Pugh calls the ‘spiritual alienation’ of culturally oppressed people. Following Heidegger’s claim that a work of art ‘opens up a world’, the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky argues that ‘to create a work of art is to be at work on the world; creating works…is one important way in which a world occurs [emphasis mine]’. African cultural artefacts, therefore, function as tellers of the worlds Africans have carved. This essence, this intrinsic value, is enough to justify their return to a continent likely to benefit from active reminders of its cultural accomplishments. A LUTA CONTINUA

On Ghana’s Independence Day in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah announced with great enthusiasm the emergence of ‘a new African’ in the world, one who will ‘show that, after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs’. Receiving stolen artefacts and placing them in museums like EMOWAA reflects the capacity envisioned by Nkrumah. But it is not enough to simply change the location of these items. What is also required for the complete restitution of these artefacts is a widespread understanding of the social functions served by African cultural artworks.  

It is important for as many Africans as possible, and others across the world, to recognize the value of African art to humanity. The goal, for Africans, should not be to use these artefacts as a purely economic tool or soft power mechanism in the same way Western nations have done, but to take on the responsibility as guardians of African histories and futures. Hegel wrongly claimed that in Africa ‘history is…out of the question’. Yet, Heidegger argued that ‘whenever art happens, a thrust enters history, history either begins or starts over again’.  

A fundamental truth at work in African cultural artefacts is that Africans have always been among the greatest sculptors of world history. Assessing the value of traditional African art through an enlarged spectrum of utility can help us advance and fulfil the emancipatory objectives that notable African thinkers have imagined of their work. An instructive example here is Chinua Achebe who, in his essay ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, said he would be ‘satisfied if [his] novels did no more than teach [African] readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them’.  

Each step, however small or slow, towards reclaiming cultural artefacts forms a crucial part of Africans’ bold affirmation of their dignity and vibrant history. European institutions have a duty to fully admit their faults and accept that African history is interminable and cannot be rewritten as a European construct. The struggle for the restitution of Africa’s cultural heritage reflects the necessary undoing of imperial domination. It is not merely political but also existential—it is a fight for the spirit of Africa

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