The Ivory Coast Drafts a Long List of the Colonial-Era Works It Wants Back From France

As support for repatriation grows, the Ivory Coast is asking France to return 148 works.

African artwork in a Paris museum. Photo by Ninara via Flickr.

The growing movement to return African art taken by colonial European powers continues to pick up steam, with the Ivory Coast joining Benin and Senegal to demand that France return several treasures it once looted from the West African country.

On Wednesday, the Ivory Coast’s culture minister, Maurice Bandaman, confirmed that he had issued a list of 148 works housed at French institutions that “will be returned” in 2019, according to Agence-France Presse. The country had previously announced plans last month to formally request repatriation of colonial-era works.

The hot-button issue recently attracted the attention of US comedy news program The Daily Show, which dedicated a segment to the pros and cons of repatriation, with host Trevor Noah, who is from South Africa, joking that the art should be returned with interest, in the form of a European work of the African museum’s choice.

Increased pressure is being put on Western museums to confront the colonial roots in their collections, especially in the wake of a breakthrough report commissioned by France that supported the idea of full restitution. France has pledged to give Benin back 26 works of art seized by troops in 1892.

Kongo mask, Loango Coast (beginning of the 20th century). Photo by Patrick Gries, Valérie, ©musée du quai Branly.

Kongo mask, Loango Coast (beginning of the 20th century). Photo by Patrick Gries, Valérie, ©musée du quai Branly.

But France may just be the beginning. “At least 50 museums around the world have Ivorian works, and this does not include private collections,” Bandaman told AFP. He favors a gradual restitution of the thousands of looted pieces, otherwise the country would have “nowhere to put them.”

A world-class museum is slated to open in 2022 or 2023 in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan, and there are further plans to build 12 cultural centers, including museums, around the country.

Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s stated commitment to repatriation, the issue will likely continue to generate controversy. Stéphane Martin, director of Paris’s Quai Branly, home to some 70,000 African artworks, has already criticized the French report for tainting “everything that was collected and bought during the colonial period with the impurity of the colonial crime,” even though some works were collected during scientific exhibitions, purchased by private collectors, or given as gifts.

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