Looted colonial art: Is there the political will to return pilfered artifacts?

From African cultural treasures to artworks and even human remains, calls have been growing louder to return goods appropriated by colonial powers during their often brutal reigns across Africa. But is it mostly talk?

While African nations have long demanded the restitution of poached cultural artifacts, in former colonial powers like France and Germany the debate has recently reached fever pitch as cultural and political figures make the case for repatriation.

In November, a  108-page breakout report by French academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr on the "Restitution of African Cultural Heritage" proposed the return of thousands of colonial art objects to create a more balanced representation in African museums. Following the report, French president Emmanuel Macron made the commitment to return such goods, most especially to Benin. But so far, Germany has been wavering. 

Giving back

2019 marks a century since Germany lost its colonial possessions following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The Humboldt Forum in the newly rebuilt Berlin Palace will open on September 14 with a permanent exhibition including a number of cultural artifacts appropriated during Germany's sometimes genocidal colonial forays in Africa.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

Colonial theft in the Kingdom of Dahomey

These three totems, half human, half animal, are kept in the collection at the Parisian Quai Branly Museum for non-European art. They come from the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, which is now the Republic of Benin. The former French colony has classified the objects as looted art and in 2016 demanded their return. France refused the request.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

The masks of the Dogon

These masks of the Dogon people are also in the Quai Branly’s collection. They originate from Mali and were brought to France after an expedition in the early 1930s. Their forms have influenced the works of famous artists, including Picasso and Baselitz. Reports from expedition members indicate the ruthless methods used to remove cultural objects.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

Power figures from the Congo Basin

The eyes are wide open, the body full of nails. The Mangaaka, a power figure from the Congo Basin was, in 1880, supposed to protect an African village from colonial invaders. Only 17 figures exist worldwide, one of them in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. It's estimated that some 90 percent of Africa's cultural heritage is in Europe.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

The cult God, Gu, from King Béhanzin's palace

The French General Alfred Amédée Dodds took a leading role in the colonization of West Africa. In 1892 his men plundered the palace of King Béhanzin, in Abomey, the capital city of the Kindom of Dahomey. This brass statue of the cult god Gu, who was supposed to have the power of life and death, is believed to have been among the objects taken in that raid.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

King Ghezo of Dahomey

This statue of Ghezo, a 19th century king of Dahomey, as well as thrones and doors with bas-reliefs were also among the objects which General Dodds handed over to the World Exhibition at Paris's Trocadero Palace in 1878. Since 2016, Benin has campaigned for the return of these items.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

Mali's stolen headpieces

The French General Louis Archinard conquered Ségou, in what is now Mali, in 1890. The cultural objects which the French army looted included jewelry, weapons, and manuscripts. The objects are now on display in Paris and Le Havre. Since 1994, the descendants of El Hadj Umar Tall have demanded the restitution of the objects.

Cultural heritage takes first step on journey home

German museum sets precedent

The acquisitive lust of European colonizers wasn’t limited to Africa. In 1880, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin commissioned Norwegian seafarer Johan Adrian Jacobsen to acquire objects from the indigenous cultures of North America. In 2018, these plundered burial objects from Alaska were returned. It was the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage's first restitution to the original owners.

Months ahead of the opening of the controversial Humboldt Forum, Monika Grütters, Germany's Minister of State for Culture, signalled a significant shift in cultural policy.

"Just waiting passively for someone to want something back is not the way to reconcile our colonial past," said Grütters on January 2. "We should actively approach the descendants ourselves."

A day later, Hermann Parzinger, the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation that manages the Humboldt Forum, said the new cultural institution should include a "silent space" where people can stop to consider the crimes committed by German colonizers. These include the mass murder of tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people during protests against colonial rule from 1904-1908. The crimes were recognized by Germany as genocide in 2015, but the country has not agreed to reparation demands.  

While such a memorial space will be welcomed as a reconciliatory gesture by an institution that will soon exhibit treasures appropriated during colonial times, critics observe that the Humboldt Forum has employed few concrete measures to return parts of its vast colonial art collection — or to even determine some of its origins.

Read more: Pressure grows on Germany in legal battle over colonial-era genocide

The Humboldt Forum, which includes the Berlin Ethnological Museum collection, has been touted as the largest and most ambitious cultural project in Germany. But as construction ends and the opening date approaches, the institution has been mired in controversy.

How much blood?

Before co-authoring the landmark French report on colonial art repatriation, Bénédicte Savoy sat on the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum. She resigned her post in July 2017 in protest over a perceived lack of provenance research at the institution. 

"I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork," she wrote in an opinion column in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no Ethnological Museum should open."

Related Subjects

Savoy said that only works whose origins have been clarified should be on display. Yet concrete provenance research has been slow, with a project on the "shared history" of Tanzanian art one of the few to be made public.

Read moreIs Berlin's Humboldt Forum shying away from colonial history? 

Even as Grütters becomes more explicit about providing greater funding and resources for provenance research leading to active restitution, some remain pessimistic.

"How do they want to put this into action?" asks Tahir Della, a member of "Decolonizing the City," a Berlin initiative whose goals include renaming streets named after German colonizers. Della is also a spokesperson for the "Initiative of Black People in Germany," the first group to represent people of African descent in a nation where blacks are often underrepresented.  

"Is the focus on bringing the stuff back to the African continent, to the original owners; or is the focus to maintain the status quo so that as many objects as possible remain in German museums?" asks Della.

Read moreBerlin's African quarter to change colonial-era street names

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

Postcard of the former Colonial Memorial in Bremen, before 1945

The Kunsthalle Bremen is the first museum in Germany and second in Europe after the Tate Britain, to review its collection through a postcolonial lens. Visitors can view a wide range of works in the collection on display from August 5 to November 19.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Bremen, the Key to the Oceans,' ca. 1935

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hanseatic port city of Bremen was a global hub of commercial activity and international trade. It was also a point of departure for Germany's colonial expansion and exploitation, as well as the port from which millions of immigrants left for the New World in the 19th century.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Mount Fuji from the Tea Plantation of Katakura in Suruga Province,' 1830

The Kunsthalle collection includes magnificent woodcarvings from Japan, most of them from the Edo period (1603-1868). Towards the end of that era, in 1853, the US navy forced Japan to open to international trade. In 1905, Heinrich Wiegand, the director of the German shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd, financed a trip to Japan through which most of the museum's masterpieces were acquired.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

Ad for shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen, ca. 1935

The Norddeutscher Lloyd ship took German artists such as Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein to islands in the Pacific Ocean shortly before the start of World War I. In addition to artistic passengers, the ship also transported woodcarvings from Japan and art from South America, among other valuable items. Works from these countries are on display in the exhibition.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Man's Head,' Emil Nolde, 1913-14

German-Danish artist Emil Nolde was one of many modernist painters inspired by sculptures from Africa and the Pacific. However, such works were often done with little understanding of the cultural context of the pieces and without crediting the original artists.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Still Life with Apples and Bananas,' Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1905

This popular painting from the early 20th century is a reminder of the 19th-century trade relations between merchants in Bremen, the Netherlands and Great Britain, which had a considerable number of colonies. The social interactions between these groups were centered around colonial goods, some of which were depicted by artists like Modersohn-Becker.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Mask of a Tahitian woman,' Paul Gauguin, 1890

Renowned for his works depicting Tahitian women, Paul Gauguin spent many years at the end of the 19th century traveling to French colonies. The art inspired by these trips is known as primitivist. It is an ambiguous concept in postcolonial theory: Even though the art celebrated "unspoiled" humanity, it is also a denigrating label maintaining that these cultures hadn't reached Western standards.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Queen Victoria,' Unknown artist from Nigeria, ca. 1900

Sculptures like this one from Nigeria show how European colonial powers were depicted by artists in the colonies. Works borrowed from the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology, like this one, are on display as part of "The Blind Spot" exhibition and provide insight into this particular time in history.

How one German museum is facing up to its colonial art

'Cui Bono,' Hew Locke, 2017

Scottish artist Hew Locke focuses on globalization and colonialism in his work. His latest, "Cui Bono," was inspired by the historic ships of Hanseatic merchants. According to Locke, "The search for wealth, violent conflict and the desire for security are factors that have affected the global movements of people for centuries."

Playing for time?

Wiebke Ahrndt, an ethnologist and director of the Übersee-Museum (Overseas Museum) in Bremen which holds a large collection of art objects from the former German colony of Cameroon, calls for a nuanced approach to restitution.

"The issues the French have raised — giving everything back to the countries of origin — have nothing to do with reality nor, as a rule, the interests of these countries," she told DW. "With special objects, it is different however: culturally sensitive objects including human remains, leadership insignia and special religious artifacts. Those are the things that we must talk about."

Read more: German museums 'willing to return' looted colonial objects

Might Ahrndt's words also be interpreted as a reluctance to returning many of Germany's prized "cultural assets" to their places of origin, and are museum-establishment concepts like "shared heritage" merely a distraction?

Tahir Della feels that statements by Grütters and Parzinger are "playing for time" as opposed to opening real dialogue with the original owners.

Using the example of the Nefertiti statue held in Berlin's Neues Museum, Della says the institution has been prevaricating for decades on returning the object to Egypt, arguing that the icon is "too old to travel."

Initiating dialogue

In an interview with DW, Jonathan Fine, the curator of African collections at Berlin's Ethnological Museum, described the first step towards restitution: "We must talk to them. We are not trying to delay something." 

Fine is part of a new provenance research project investigating the origins of 1200 objects from Namibia through dialogue with the relevant communities. "In many cases" the work will lead to restitution, he says.

The Humboldt Forum's Hermann Parzinger also supports new initiatives to deal with Germany's colonial heritage akin to the 1998 Washington Declaration that outlined the restitution of Nazi-looted cultural goods to original owners and their heirs. International conferences and joint exhibitions by European and African museums might further "lead to loans, and even to the restitution of items," he said.

Della, for his part, believes that the idea of conferences and declarations is often too "wishy-washy," adding that African-German groups like Decolonize the City have never been consulted in the creation of such initiatives, or indeed over plans to display cultural artifacts from Africa at the Humboldt Forum.     

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Berlin City Palace around 1900

The original cornerstone was laid in 1443, but the royal residence only began to take on its final form in 1701. Architect Andreas Schlüter designed the palace facades in the Italian style. With its 1,210 rooms, the City Palace subsequently became known as the biggest Baroque building north of the Alps.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

War damage

During the Second World War the palace caught fire during an air raid. The fire destroyed virtually all of the state rooms in the north and south wing. Other parts of the building survived, including the outer walls with their sculptured decorations, the supporting walls, and the main stairwells.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

First neglected, then blown up

Exhibitions were held in the post-war years in the surviving parts of the building. In 1950, however, the communist East German government decided it wasn't part of German cultural heritage and gave the order for it to be destroyed, despite many protests. In its place the Marx-Engels-Square was created as a location for mass rallies.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Socialist interplay

In the 1970s, East German leader Erich Honecker had the Palast der Republik built on the site. It became the seat of the East German parliament, but the building also served various cultural purposes as well as being home to numerous bars and restaurants. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the building was closed because of its asbestos content, and later torn down.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Deceptively real

After German reunification, there was a passionate discussion about the possible reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace. In 1993, a pro-construction lobby group landed a coup by erecting a scaffold with a life-size canvas mock-up based on historical pictures of the City Palace façade. In 2002, the German parliament voted to have the palace reconstructed.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Reconstruction in the original size

In 2008, the design by Italian Franco Stella won the architectural competition to rebuild the palace. His design combines the Baroque exterior with a more modern interior. The reconstructed Berlin City Palace is to house an international art and cultural center known as the "Humboldt Forum."

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Keeping an eye on the building site

The "Humboldt Box" has become a temporary Berlin landmark - since 2011 it serves as an information center on the past and future of the City Palace. It attracted 100,000 visitors in the first 50 days alone. Visitors can also enjoy a panoramic look at how the reconstruction work is progressing from the viewing platform.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Things are underway

On June 12, 2013, German President Joachim Gauck laid the cornerstone, which has two numbers engraved on it: 1443 and 2013, the date when the cornerstone for the historical palace was originally laid and, of course, the date the reconstruction began.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Old decorations for new walls

While the walls are being constructed the Schlossbauhütte palace builders' shed, is making Baroque façade decorations. Using historic designs, sculptors are creating some 3,000 original pieces. The palace façade cost about 80 million euros ($90 million), most of which will be financed with donations. The finished palace will cost some 590 million euros, most of which will be financed by the state.

Berlin turns City Palace into cultural center

Great expectations

At the moment, gray concrete still dominates the site - but this will change in 2019 when the Humboldt Forum is opened. Then, Berlin Museums will exhibit their non-European cultural treasures here, while the Humboldt University begins holding international conferences. The Palace courtyard will serve as a backdrop for music and theater performances.

To lend or to give back

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin's new Humboldt Forum has the second largest collection of "Benin Bronzes," sculptural artifacts looted by the British from the ancient kingdom of Benin, which partly stretches into current-day Nigeria. Along with a network of European museums, the Berlin institution has agreed to loan some of the 500-odd objects to a museum in Benin under the auspices of the Benin Dialogue Group.  

Some say, however that lending proposals like these show an unwillingness to return the artifacts to their rightful owners.  

Australian Aboriginal activist Roxley Foley suggests that while British museums, like some in Germany, are happy to lend back cultural artifacts, including human remains, to the original owners, it should be the other way around.

"How about you give the objects to us and we'll lend them back to you?" he said during a October 2017 conference in Berlin titled "Prussian Colonial Heritage. Sacred Objects and Human Remains in Berlin Museums" — a resolution from conference participants demanded that the Humboldt Forum "become a place of transnational dialogue and global reconciliation" by initiating joint provenance research projects "aimed at repatriation of all human remains from colonized people." 

In their report on the "Restitution of African Cultural Heritage," Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr also oppose the long-term loan of objects, favoring instead the unconditional return of property or remains, and urging Macron to cast aside "political prudence and museum anxiety." 

Flash Galerie Beutekunst

Some of the 3000-odd Benin bronzes that are mostly held in the British Museum and Berlin Ethnological Museum are being loaned back to their place of origin

Finding the political will

Following Savoy's and Sarr's report, German museum directors like Marion Ackermann of the Dresden State Art Collections have said that cultural institutions now need to tackle complex legal issues to expedite the return of cultural goods, including human remains. But she also stressed the need for a national political commitment before such remains are repatriated to countries like Australia and Namibia.

In this vein, Monika Grütters and Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State for International Cultural and Educational Policy, have announced the creation of a binding policy on "cultural heritage from a colonial context" in March 2019.

Is this the kind of political commitment that Tahir Della says has been absent so far?

While Grütters acknowledges that both European and German colonial history had for decades been a "blind spot in the culture of remembrance," Della still fears that, for now, he is "not seeing the political will" to actually change this.   

Now live
01:54 mins.
DW News | 23.11.2018

French report demands return artworks to Africa