• gerard van weyenbergh

Restitution of African Art, why should we do that or not? part 1

When President Macron promised to return the works of art to Africa, he embarked on a process whose outcome will undoubtedly be long, tedious, and uncertain. When the statement of a problem is wrongly put, the answer can only be complex and approximate. As everyone has noticed, it starts with the inappropriate use of the word "restitution" since you can only return something that you have improperly held, which legally belongs to a legitimate owner dispossessed of the property, his property. This term - one could not choose worse - induces, even before entering into the debate, the concept of committed fault, therefore of guilt, and implies a reparation.

Difficult after that to start impartially and serenely.

I leave it to people who are more qualified than me to talk about the conditions of acquiring public collections. It can be outright theft when it comes to particular objects collected by Marcel Griaule during the Dakar Djibouti mission or acts of war such as the capture of King Béhanzin's palace in Dahomey. Although, if it turns out to be correct that Béhanzin himself set his palace on fire as some claim, the looting will become de facto a rescue, which would only complicate matters. President Macron has decided to return the works claimed by Benin without further legal action. I did not know that a President of the Republic could dispose of the inalienable French property as he pleased,

African countries, often quick to seek compensation for events dating back to colonial times, claim that everything has been looted at home, thus justifying museums' absence in their countries and requests for restitution, which, no doubt, will eventually affect collectors.

Let's look at the facts.

It is important to remember that the first collections of masks and statues, long considered ethnographic objects, took place when all this was worth nothing.

Profit was not the goal.

The primary goal - unmentionable and unacknowledged - of these collections was to transmit the image of a brutal and savage Africa to promote France's civilizing mission. It was only a smokescreen to justify the unpopularity of the enormous sums committed on a continent where everything had to be done to make human and natural resources profitable. The fact of presenting in museums the artifacts country by country, ethnicity by ethnicity, is a survival of this state of mind where the purpose was to convey the idea of ​​an Africa populated by a mosaic of wild tribes, unrelated to each other. The missionaries did the same, not hesitating to screen films that gave a degrading image of the Negro (Jean d'Esme mission for the Fathers of the Holy Spirit in 1930) to raise funds for the missions. Therefore, the masks and statues were viewed in a pejorative manner, and no one was interested in them, was it to mock or deplore blacks' condition. They did not hesitate to screen films that gave a degrading image of the Negro (Jean d'Esme mission for the Fathers of the Holy Spirit in 1930) to raise funds for the missions.

However, in 1906, painters like Vlaminck and Derain exchange letters to testify to an emotional shock in front of these objects they consider with an artistic eye. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a painting painted by Picasso in 1907, reveals a new visual language directly inspired by African sculpture: cubism. This major event will have a profound impact on all the art of the 20th century.

But it was not until the early 1920s that masks and statues from Africa began to agitate a small avant-garde in France, painters, writers, poets, sculptors. During this time, in Africa, colonization made its way, the priests convert, the doctors and the nurses heal, the schoolmasters teach, the agriculture develops, the progress infiltrates even in the small villages of the bush or the great forest, and ancestral beliefs lose their power. The relationship with the cult of ancestors deteriorates, the mask loses its authority, drugs heal better than the fetishist, traditional values ​​gradually regress. The ground is ready for families and villages to begin to dispose of ordinary objects, masks, and statues, which send them back the image of an ancient past which they have often been taught to be ashamed of and which some are in a hurry to forget.

Thus, in the 1940s, the Sénoufo in Ivory Coast got rid of their statues in a sacred wood to convert to Massa's cult. They will be collected by a missionary, father Convers, and will thus be saved from termites. I once had in my hands an important mirror fetish (now at the Dapper foundation) which had been offered by the chief of a Bakongo village to Doctor Eugène Jamot to thank him for having conquered the sleeping sickness which hit the population. Colonial administrators such as Reste de Roca, doctors such as Jammot, engineers such as Robert Lehuard, and all curious and cultured people gathered collections on site before the Second World War. They were many to take an interest, out of curiosity, out of love for art, out of a spirit of preservation of a culture which was disappearing, out of respect for all that man produces that is beautiful too.

Simultaneously, many objects were spontaneously given by new converts to the missionaries who sent them to the museum of missions in Lyon, where some of them were resold.

Major cultural events such as La Création du Monde by the Swedish ballets in Paris in 1923 are the beginning of an interest which does not cease growing for African art, with a public which does not cease widening. The first collections appear, Paul Guillaume in France, Doctor Barnes and Héléna Rubinstein on the other side of the Atlantic, Josef Müeller in Solothurn in Switzerland. The first professional collectors, often big game hunters, took advantage of safaris to collect in bush villages. Ethnologists are also doing it.

A market based on growing demand creates a proportionate supply.

The 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris generated strong demand and marked the start of production of mass-produced copies for the white market in the colony. As early as 1950, a few skilled Senegalese and Malian merchants had already made a specialty of collecting and reselling works of art: Sow Gouro in Bamako, Mamadou Scylla who had become a millionaire and who owned an apartment and a shed on rue Séguier, a stone's throw from Quai des Grands-Augustins in Paris, Diongassi Almamin who will sell the magnificent Djennenké maternity from the Périnet collection, to name only the most famous. The market is growing, and a few European merchants are crisscrossing West Africa in search of rare objects: Henri and Hélène Kamer, Jean-Michel Huguenin and Pierre Langlois, Georges Vidal, Emil Storrer, and Frédéric-Henri Lem.

Until the 1960s, the African art market remained fairly closed, only involving a group of enthusiasts. All over France, second-hand shops are full of sculptures that you can buy for very cheap. Robert Duperrier and Jean Roudillon crisscrossed France and returned with their Citroën 15cv filled with ethnographic objects, at that time much more difficult to sell than to find. Specialized antique shops are opening in Paris in the insalubrious district of the islet of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Ernst Asher, Félicia Dialossin, Duperrier, Huguenin etc. .

Through this brief overview of the birth of the African art market, we can guess that there has never been a raid or widespread looting, as some claim.

On the one hand, because the interests at stake were not sufficient and, above all, because religious objects were kept in the secret of the fetish hut. Nothing to do with the configuration of a church or the remains of a temple where you can choose and then use or order. The works came out in small quantities, sold by heads of families who often prefer to say that the object was stolen, which puts an end to any discussion, and incidentally avoids having to share the money received. The early 1970s saw the appearance of preachers paid by Gaddafi who walked from village to village, preaching Islam and financing mosques. As proof of sincere conversion, they demanded that the traditional objects be handed over to them, which their nephews would then undertake to sell to European antique dealers and collectors.

© Reginald Groux, La Tribune de l'art