an artifact wrapped for delivery

The Colonized World Wants Its Artifacts Back

The mass repatriation of indigenous art and objects around the world would mean an all-encompassing recalibration of the ways modern day museums are understood and have traditionally functioned.
December 7, 2020, 1:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Unthinkable Ideas issue, which explores revolutionary ideas that could alter our world completely.

In September, the Belgian government announced that it would be returning the tooth of Congolese Prime Minister and Pan-African intellectual Patrice Lumumba back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The news landed quietly in the digital sphere with the context blurred by the dryness of a headline, but it was true: A piece of an African hero was going home. 

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Lumumba had been assassinated in 1961 by a firing squad in a Belgian and American-backed coup that saw dictator in the making, Mobuto Sese Seko, placed in power. Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved in acid, his bones crushed and scattered. His tooth, however, was saved; kept by a Belgian policeman for decades, a body part turned into a family heirloom. For Lumumba’s family and nation, the return of a piece of him is a moment of somber celebration, but there are nauseating questions remaining. Where was the tooth kept for all this time? Was it in a jar? Or wrapped in cloth and put in a tiny box? Maybe it sat on a mantle, not easily visible at first glance, but when picked up, was a source of endless fascination, even mirth. 

Lumumba’s tooth is far from the only object that has been taken during colonial and neocolonial plunders, but it is one of the few items to be marked for return. The repatriation of these objects—as well as pieces of art and other artifacts—has been an issue of contention for decades, as Western forces not only pillaged from Africa but ransacked countries across the globe; from Greece’s Parthenon marbles currently located at the British Museum to scores of priceless Chinese artifacts. While Lumumba’s tooth was in the hands of a single family, thousands of African bones are currently boxed in the basements of respected European institutions and have been displayed as both pieces of art and scientific anomalies.

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In 2018, a seminal report written by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy and commissioned by France’s President Emmanuel Macron tracked African objects looted from the continent. The report found that roughly 90 to 95 percent of African art was housed outside of Africa in major institutions such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The numbers were astonishing yet unsurprising; when European soldiers landed in Africa, their victories included not only taking dismembered body parts, but ransacking sites for all valuable objects. The report also offers a simple conclusion: The stolen art should be returned. 

Despite these calls, countries have moved slowly. France alone holds an estimated 90,000 objects from Africa, and while organizations, countries, and individuals have demanded their mass repatriation for years, Western countries have continuously denied their requests, or tied them up in bureaucratic hell. In early November, the French Senate voted in favor of the restitution of 27 stolen objects, including royal artifacts from Benin and a sword from Senegal. After the vote, culture minister Roselyne Bachelot said, “This is not an act of repentance, but an act of friendship and trust,” keeping in line with the detached beatitudes of European leaders who have chosen to frame restitution as an act of good faith, and not an admission of colonial atrocities.

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The return of Africa’s treasures, as envisioned in the Sarr-Savoy report, along with the mass repatriation of indigenous art and objects around the world, would mean an all-encompassing recalibration of the ways modern day museums are understood and have traditionally functioned. European museums and countries would have to fully concede their history of plundered acquisitions, while acknowledging ownership and returning all that was stolen. It is the staunch refusal to do so that makes mass repatriation untenable. 

“Western Banks are usually not willing to give up monies that have been stashed in their vaults by criminals which they know were illegally acquired. And this also applies to museums,” said Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Professor of African and American Diaspora Art at Princeton University. “Museums acquire symbolic capital because of the value of what they have. If the British museum were to return even half of the looted objects they have it will become a small museum in every sense,” he added. “That’s a major reason why they’ll concoct all kinds of excuses for not returning them, and it’s deliberate.”

There are about 8,000 African bones believed to be held in Germany. Among those lie the remains of Mangi Meli, a Tanzanian war hero and leader of the Chaga people, who led a fight against German forces in the late 1890s. 

Meli was hanged in 1900, and his bones and disembodied head were taken to Germany. Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, an activist, researcher and founder of the restitution-focused organization Berlin Postkolonial, has been looking for Meli’s remains for over 40 years, after promising his grandmother that he would bring back the venerated leader. “I was convinced that Germans are professionals at keeping records and that they are very accurate and so on,” he told VICE over the phone from Berlin. “So I thought finding him would be very easy. Even back at home people don’t believe me when I tell them I have not found anything.” 

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Mboro’s grandmother died in 1980, two years after his arrival in Berlin, but the stories of Meli she shared with her grandson in the shadow of Kilimanjaro in Moshi, Tanzania, kept him going. “She would always tell me stories, but they weren’t stories, they were actual history, and with Mangi Meli she was so proud that it took him seven hours to die once hung, while the others died very quickly,” said Mboro. “When she was telling me this as a small child I was so shocked that it would take someone that long to die, but when I grew up I realized that the Germans made a specific knot so they could torture him for a long time, and to show the people that if you dare to do anything against the Germans this is what is going to happen to you.” 

For Mboro, the urgency to find and return Meli has never wavered, largely because he feels a strong responsibility to his kin in Tanzania, whose daily lives and mental welfare has been deeply affected by the lack of information regarding the whereabouts of an ancestor. “Most of the people in Tanzania believe that because we haven’t buried Mangi Meli properly, that’s why the rains are not coming the way they are supposed to come,” he said. “You find there is always this thinking. So we have to bring him back home to be buried.” 

The impact of this colonial theft, of both art and bodies, has had an undeniable impact on culture and tradition. In numerous instances, the pillaging of sacred African sites completely wiped out rituals and events. “You can draw a sharp line between the loss of these cultural objects coupled with the deaths of priests and priestesses, and the decline in a lot of rituals and practices in Eastern Nigeria,” said Okeke-Agulu. “That tells me that may also have happened in other parts of the continent where there were clear cases of directed acts of looting of ritual centers and objects that were part of important religious rites. That caused significant stress on the cultural lives of the people for whom these objects had meaning.” 

“They steal from you. Take your art and your belongings to their country. Then they showcase them like, look what I have. I am more powerful than you.”

The slow-moving and wildly obtuse process of body repatriation, like art, is a long-winded navigation into European paternalism, arrogance, and anti-blackness. One of the most high-profile returns was of the remains of Saartjie Baartman in 2002—a South African woman who was taken to England in 1810 and presented as a carnival freak attraction. After her death in 1815, her body parts were exhibited in the Museum of Sciences and Natural History in Angers, France and in Musée de l’Homme. It took repeated calls from South African leaders, including Nelson Mandela, for Baartman’s remains to finally be brought home. 

Mboro’s search for Meli has led him into clinics, universities and museums, and for decades he worked alone, until he co-founded Berlin Poskolonial in 2007. Since its formation, the organization has raised awareness about colonial collections in German museums; issued calls for full inventories; advocated for the total return of art instead of loans; and highlighted the need for German accountability regarding the genocide of the OvaHerero, Nama, and San people in Namibia, where over 150,000 were killed between 1904 and 1908. Berlin Postkolonial has also worked to dismantle statues erected in support of German colonizers and rename streets coined after German military heroes. Mboro isn’t alone in his work: Several organizations around the world, including the African Foundation for Development in Britain and Raw Material Company in Senegal, have also been deeply involved in the quest for repatriation.

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When Mboro imagines repatriation of human remains on a large scale, he is cognizant of the fact that hundreds of African communities who lost family would have to be involved throughout the process. “If the decision is made to send the human remains all at once, we must be informed so we can arrange ourselves,” he said. “Because you find that these remains belong to various communities and not just one.”

Conversations about restitution are also frequently waylaid by discussions on loans, yet another barrier to the possibility of mass repatriation. The Nigerian government, for instance, has lobbied for the return of the Benin Bronzes—sculptures and plaques which were stolen in 1897 by British troops. Much of the back and forth has been focused on a possible lending agreement, with the British Museum deciding when and for how long they would lend the pillaged statues to their places of origin. 

“The main problem with all of this talk about loans is by lending these objects or even the Africans accepting these things as loans, they are invariably acknowledging that the Western museums are the owners of the objects. Because you don’t loan what does not belong to you,” noted Okeke-Agulu. 

Some leaders of Western museums have also posited that loans are better with the argument that African nations are ill-equipped to protect and hold their cultural heritage. “If per the European claims there aren’t sufficient institutions to keep these objects in ideal conditions, then there’s a responsibility to help construct them,” said Zoé Samudzi, the co-author of As Black as Resistance and a doctoral researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. “There’s something so perverse about sending some of these artifacts back on loan to the countries that they came from.” 

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There is also an inherent misunderstanding of what these objects mean to different communities, in that they aren’t all considered museum-appropriate. In 2011, over 30 years after arriving in Germany, Mboro and Berlin Postkolonial succeeded in returning 20 heads back to Namibia; in the years that followed, dozens more were returned. But the returns were complicated by the fact that while the heads are no longer in German museums, they now sit in the National Museum of Namibia. 

“The heads have still not been buried and I don’t want this to happen to Tanzania,” lamented Mboro. “These are not just skulls—they are people, and they need to be buried according to our customs.” 

a museum presentation box with bloody handprints on the outside

A museum was historically meant to be a space where visitors could go to study art, but as eras have passed, nations crumbled, and cultures changed, so too have these institutions. They have become a tool for a certain kind of historical revisionism, while also claiming hundreds of thousands of artifacts as tokens belonging not to the places they came from, but in the hands of those who moved them.

At its core, a mass repatriation of stolen art and objects requires a rejection of white supremacy, and an intentional refusal to bask in colonial triumph. But it also poses the possibility of a different kind of return for African nations and once-pillaged countries all over the world; one that would require leaders, thinkers and individuals to reject Western ideals of what it means to safe-guard art and objects, and reintroduce ancestral and local ways of showcasing culture. 

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“They come into your house while you are sleeping, or when you are awake. They kill half your family. They steal from you. Take your art and your belongings to their country,” said Nana Oforiatta Ayim, curator, filmmaker, and author of The Godchild. “Then they showcase them like, look what I have. I am more powerful than you. Years later, when the world has somewhat righted itself, you ask for them back and they refuse.” As the founder of the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge, an organization through which she has created The Mobile Museum, Ayim works to reimagine museums through grassroots engagement where participants can share films, personal objects, paintings and oral histories from different regions across Ghana. 

Last month, Ghana announced the President’s Committee on Museums and Monuments facilitated by Ayim through the ANO Institute. The committee includes several Ghanian experts in areas of archeology, architecture, curating, and repatriation, and according to the press release, the goal will be to “present radical new ways of presenting narratives, as well as engaging communities from across social divides in Ghana, so they might see themselves properly represented in their museums.” It’s a culmination of all the avenues Ayim has taken to best show the continent’s history, and do so in a way that pays careful attention to how information has been traditionally shared. “We are trying to create a space where people who you would not ordinarily see in a museum space feel comfortable entering,” she said. This project, organizers hope, could have a far-reaching impact not only in Ghana but all across Africa as people start to rebuild museums as places connected to their cultural ways of communication which differ so drastically from those in the West. 

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“I have never really understood the focus on text in Western museums,” said Ayim. “Where is the orality? So much of how we shared history in Africa was through story-tellers and knowledge keepers. Orality gives an intimacy to museums that is so lacking in the Western hemisphere.” A refusal to view spirituality and memory as legitimate sources of information means much has gone unrecorded, and through the committee, Ayim hopes to remedy that oversight while also overturning a one-sided approach to history-keeping: her focus on speech would mean that the stories and voices of African women will be intrinsic to the building of the museum, as they have historically been recorders and archivists.

“Part of what happened to Africa as part of the colonial encounter is the diminishment of the cultural wealth of Africans by the symbolic violences done to them,” said Okeke-Agulu. “The question of repatriation has everything to do with the possibility of reconstructing Africa’s cultural heritages because that is necessary and important to the psychic progress and psychological progress of African peoples.”

In 1868, the British Napier Expedition travelled to Maqdala, Ethiopia, as a part of a military incursion to retrieve Europeans imprisoned by King Tewodoros II. Along the way, the 13,000 soldiers also took what historians have described as the “largest haul of stolen artifacts in Ethiopia’s history,” which included a priestly gold crown, a gold chalice and several processional crosses. Once in England, the artifacts were portioned out to libraries and museums. 

Included in this raid was also something even closer to the heart of Ethiopia: A lock of hair cut from Tewodoros’s head after he died by suicide instead of surrendering to the British military, and his seven year-old-son Prince Alemayehu. The young royal was taken as a gift for Queen Victoria and remained in the UK until his death. He is currently buried at Windsor Castle and years-long requests from the Ethiopian government for the return of his body have yielded numerous refusals from the British government. In 2018, the Victoria and Albert Museum featured a “Maqdala Exhibit,” marking 150 years since the looting. 

The story of Lumumba’s tooth, Meli’s (still missing) remains, and Prince Alemayehu rings true to a scene from the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s slave master character places a skull squarely on the dinner table in front of his guests; an embrace of savagery with theatrics and a show of power. More than anything, it reminds us that Black art and bodies are not solely placed on display in museums, but have been so stripped of humanity as to become trinkets for white holders.

Two years after the Sarr-Savoy report, institutions across Europe and in the United States have largely remained silent and uncompromising. While mass repatriation of expropriated art sounds like the best case scenario, Okeke-Agulu says that it is too simplistic, and just not feasible. “Rather than mass repatriation, Africa and Africans ought to pursue an agenda of targeted repatriation and restitution,” he said. “They should focus on significant, important and exemplary objects—objects of high artistic and cultural value as judged by African stakeholders.” Still, said Okeke-Agulu, “The actual physical transfer of the objects is not the most important—the most important is the acknowledgement of ownership.”

In 2017, Mboro thought he had found some of Meli’s remains, and flew one of the late hero’s great-grandsons to Berlin for a DNA test. Isariya Meli Mandara was 88 when he landed in Berlin, and though the bones were not a match, for Mboro, it was gratifying to have genetic material on hand for when they do find Meli and can test again. “I am always in touch with his family, who believe that because I have been working so hard on this, I will eventually bring him back,” Mboro said. “And I am demanding that all the bones, and not just Meli, be returned back to Tanzania and that the German government pay for the cost, because they are the ones who brought them.”

Follow Tarisai Ngangura on Twitter.