In 1952, a Swiss doctor brought back from colonial Congo seven skeletons belonging to the nomadic Mbuti people and donated them to the University of Geneva for research.
Seventy years later, Swiss, German and Congolese artists from the theater and music ensemble GROUP50:50 traveled to a forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet the descendants of the seven Mbuti whose skeletons were stolen. Together they developed a ritual to allow the seven spirits to find rest. Consequently, GROUP50:50 transformed these experiences into a multimedia musical theater piece on “(neo)colonial crimes, death and mourning”.
Titled The Ghosts Are Returning, the show is part of a growing international mobilization of African and European activists, artists and policymakers demanding the return of a myriad of African artefacts and works of art looted from the colonial era and now jealously guarded in museums and universities in Europe. .
Congolese artist Mwazulu Diyabanza, for example, recently “brought home” a 19th-century burial stone belonging to the Bari people of Chad by removing it from the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which houses more than 70,000 African artefacts. He made similar attempts in Marseille and Amsterdam, each time sparking heated public debate over who the thief really is.
Diyabanza himself seems certain to know who the real “thief” is. “They are the ones who stole,” he says. “They stole part of my story, part of my identity. And I did what I think everyone here would do if they saw a thief: get back what they took without asking permission.
His point about identity is key to understanding the significance of the restitution movement. Art objects and rituals help humans navigate their past and present, providing a fundamental anchor for the self and for the communities of self that we call society and state.
The cultural dispossession suffered by the African continent during European colonialism amounted to an erasure of its past – an erasure that was used retrospectively to try to justify the false claim that Africa was an empty continent and outside of history. before colonization.
Works such as the 16th-century Benin Bronzes, which are not only incredibly intricate but also depict pre-colonial interactions between Europe and Africa, for example, testify to the continent’s long history and cultural richness. Many of these bronzes, however, no longer belong in West Africa, but in European museums.
Human remains and ritual masks also connect Africa’s past to its present and inform its current inhabitants of the depth of their heritage. They should today be scattered across villages, linking communities to their past through the exercise of the political and spiritual power they confer. However, most of these objects, like the seven skeletons of Mbuti, are far from home. Carrying away such treasures is more than an aesthetic alteration: it is an attempt to erase a people’s sense of identity.
Pressured by changing international perceptions and increasing artistic activism, European governments and museums are beginning to respond. In July, Germany reached an agreement with Nigeria to return more than 1,000 looted objects, engaging a wide range of institutions ranging from state ethnographic museums to the Berggruen Museum, otherwise known for its extraordinary Picasso collection. In August, the UK followed suit. France also acted by commissioning a ground-breaking restitution report in 2019 and returning Benin’s treasures in its possession to Cotonou, the country’s largest city, this year.
While the restitution of the most famous works is often decided at the highest diplomatic level, cities are beginning to play an equally important role both in the physical restitution by municipal museums and, above all, in the human contact that accompanies the ceremonies. for the “return home” of the works.
On December 13, the French city of Montpellier will host, together with the Fondazione Studio Rizoma, based in Palermo, the first gathering of municipalities on the theme of restitution. City-level diplomacy is increasingly taking center stage internationally – from climate change issues to migration. Today, mayors and municipal politics are also taking the lead in restitution efforts.
Europe has much to gain from this restitution process. The Ghosts Are Returning, the track from GROUP50:50, certainly refers to the return of the skeletons to their rightful place. But, equally, it refers to the return (or very belated recognition) of Europe’s own ghosts – above all the exploitation and violence that characterized its colonial past and upon which much of its current wealth is based. built.
The restitution movement helps Africans and Europeans to develop a better and deeper awareness of their past. “For a better future to flourish, we must subject our museums to psychoanalysis,” as GROUP50:50 violist Ruth Kemna says in the piece.
Contemporary Europe, as the French philosopher Paul Ricœur explained, is defined by “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. After two world wars and untold cruelties committed against each other, European countries finally looked together at the abyss of their guilt and overcame mutual resentment. As a result, they managed to turn a history of violence and hostility into a broad political union. They could and should now extend these reconstruction and reconciliation efforts to Africa.
Quickly returning stolen cultural heritage to Africa is the bare minimum that Europe can do to show that it takes reconciliation seriously. However, this is barely enough. How to address the human, environmental and economic plunder suffered by African nations over the centuries?
“The Ghosts Are Returning” also addresses this question. The equatorial forest that has been the habitat of the Mbuti people for generations is now threatened by illegal logging by multinational corporations, including European ones. Shouldn’t true restitution also include a response to this ongoing plunder?
Europe could decide to retain its declining privilege and ignore all calls for restitution and reconciliation. Or it could seize the opportunity to genuinely engage African states and their civil society in a conversation among equals that could provide Europeans and Africans with answers to global challenges.
As the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe reminds us, the French term for knowledge is “knowledge”, a word which literally means “to be born together”. This is a very fair definition of the knowledge that art can transmit. Ultimately, that’s what theater and politics have in common: they force us to come to terms with our ghosts.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.