Global EditionASIA 中文双语Français
China Daily Global / 2024-02 / 20 / Page003

More African nations calling for return of stolen artifacts

By OTIATO OPALI in Nairobi | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-20 00:00

Calls are increasing across Africa for the return to the continent of heritage items stolen during colonial times.

As a result, experts said more cultural relics are likely to find their way back home, contributing to a restoration of the very essence of African culture.

In early February, for example, the citizens of Ghana were elated over the return by a museum in the United States of antiques that had been looted from Ghana by British forces almost 150 years ago. The looted Asante royal regalia and other objects were returned to their original place, the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, the capital of Ghana's Ashanti Region.

The return of the artifacts signifies a turning point in Ghanaian history and reflects a global dialogue about cultural heritage restitution. Experts said this might inspire others to evaluate the source of cultural items that they possess.

Abigail Arunga, a Kenyan writer and social activist, said that African countries have been demanding the return of stolen artifacts for some time now, but the calls are getting louder.

"In Kenya, Kenyan artists under an umbrella organization called The Nest began the Invisible Inventories Program in 2012, with the objective of writing to a number of museums across the world asking them if they have any Kenyan artifacts in their collections," Arunga said.

"Last time I checked, of the 40 museums that were written to, 33 have responded. So far, there is a record of 32,000 Kenyan artifacts in 33 foreign museums," she said.

According to experts, the efforts are much more than the recovery of objects stolen during colonial times. The pursuit of such items is also about reclaiming the lost identity of people or nations, healing historical wounds, and redressing the imbalances perpetuated by centuries of colonial oppression, they said.

Arunga noted that in the past five years, Benin has officially asked France for the return of statues that were looted during the European ransacking of the Royal Palaces of Abomey in 1892, while in Ethiopia, the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures has also been fighting for the return of cultural items seized by British forces at Magdala in 1868.

"We demand the return of these African artifacts because they are not just items of antiquity, but represent a stolen culture, and their continued stay in European museums is a refusal to acknowledge the injustice that was perpetrated by colonial powers," Arunga said.

She added that in some cases, the removal of items resulted in communities losing knowledge about cultural concepts or no longer knowing how to make such items, including combs, clothing, war armor and other emblems of a lifestyle that was rich and vibrant.

Charles Kojo, who is from Ghana, said that the theft of Africa's cultural treasures has had far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the material realm. From ceremonial artifacts and archives to intangible cultural expressions, Africa's rich and diverse heritage has been scattered across foreign lands, out of reach for millions on the continent, Kojo said.

The impact of this loss is profound, as it robs present and future generations of the opportunity to connect with their history, culture and identity, he said.

"This is not just about returning pieces of art, but about restoring the very essence of these cultures. In this pursuit of restitution, we acknowledge the importance of redressing historical wrongs and dismantling the structural inequalities that persist today," Kojo said.

He added that a crucial aspect of calls on the continent for restitution should involve investing in the development of skills and infrastructure in African nations.

Such investment would ensure that repatriated artifacts are appropriately cared for, displayed and preserved, Kojo said. This would help Africans cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility and empower their nations with the means to safeguard their own heritage.

Veronica Waweru, an archaeologist doing fieldwork in Kenya, said that museums around the world still hold and exhibit stolen items, despite a UNESCO treaty in 1970 halting the illicit trade of cultural artifacts.

"Even after some museums decide to repatriate artifacts, they must cut a great deal of red tape to do so," Waweru said. "However, in recent years, there has been increased pressure on Western powers to return stolen African property. These demands have caught the attention of the intended targets, as Western leaders all over the world have vouched to begin returning African treasures."

For example, in 2022, Ireland promised to return mummified remains to Egypt. In addition, the Natural History Museum in London and Cambridge University said they are ready to return stolen human remains back to Zimbabwe, and France has showed a willingness to return artifacts to African countries.

Waweru said these developments are a result of sustained pressure by African countries and organizations calling for the return of the items. However, it is important that African countries continue fostering widespread public awareness, she said.


Artifacts returned from Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States, are carried to Asante King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II at the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Ghana, on Feb 8. MISPER APAWU/AP



Three of the royal artifacts looted 150 years ago by British forces from Ghana's ancient Asante Kingdom, which were later transferred to Fowler Museum. FOWLER MUSEUM/REUTERS





Most Viewed

Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349