New Documentary About Africa’s Fight for Return of Its Stolen Art

by Yvonne Bynoe

The new documentary, Restitution: Africa’s Fight for Its Art by French director Nora Philippe, is part of AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange series. The film chronicles the theft of hundreds of thousands of pieces of African art by European nations in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885.

At the Berlin Conference, England, France, Germany and other European countries carved up control of the continent of Africa amongst themselves without regard to ethnic or tribal borders. The Europeans stole African art and artifacts prior to 1884, but the Berlin Conference exponentially increased the incidents under African colonization. Stolen African artworks also made their way into North America.

The film also addresses the attempts African countries have unsuccessfully made over the decades to have Western governments and museums return their art back to them. In 1897, the British military looted thousands of art and artifacts now known as the “Benin Bronzes.” The Benin Bronzes are a collection of expertly made sculptures and plaques, carved out of ivory, brass, ceramic, and wood that were stolen from the royal palace of the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, in the Kingdom of Benin. Many of the pieces were painstakingly created for the ancestral altars that honored past kings and queen mothers.

The Kingdom of Benin became British-ruled Nigeria. The British Museum in London states that, in 1898, the Foreign Office and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty gave them many of the objects from Benin, currently in its collection. Today, the Benin Bronzes collection is scattered among more than 100 institutional and private collections with the British Museum having the largest numbers. Furthermore, by some estimates, more than ninety percent of all cultural artifacts known to originate in Africa are now held in Europe.

What quickly stands out in the Philippe documentary is that the European museums are adamant about retaining physical possession of these stolen works, but are less keen about exhibiting them to the public. The vast majority of the purloined art is stored out of view in basements and warehouses. 

The documentary also highlights that, in addition to the Benin Bronzes, European museums also are holding priceless statues and the remains of thousands of Africans in “anthological” collections.  

Although not included in the documentary, it’s important to mention that in 2009 the head of King Badu Bonsu II, the ruler of the Ahanta tribe in present-day Ghana, was returned. For 150 years, Bonsu’s decapitated head had been stored in a jar of formaldehyde in a Dutch museum. In 1838, after beheading two Dutch emissaries, Bonsu was beheaded by Dutch soldiers who took his head back to The Netherlands as a battle trophy.

Seven years earlier, as the documentary details, in 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa. Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus.” In 1816, after she died penniless at the age of 26, her body was dissected and parts were put on display in a museum in Paris.

Phillippe’s documentary uses archival footage and interviews with noted African and European art historians and cultural experts to explore how the plundering of African treasures continues to have reverberations throughout the continent. These large scale art thefts deprived African peoples of important parts of their cultural and spiritual heritages.

Amid increased pressure from activists and African governments to return the plundered art to African art countries, will Western governments and museums cooperate?

That is the central question of Phillipe’s documentary, and there is ample reason to believe that they will not. The documentary covers President Emmanuel Macron of France’s historic call in November 2017 for the return of stolen African art upon request. The French government subsequently asked Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to lead the project. Their groundbreaking report on the topic concluded that all stolen African art in France should immediately be repatriated. In response, pundits from around the world warned that implementing the French report’s recommendation would result in European museums being emptied.

In 2018, France repatriated approximately 26 major works to Senegal and Madagascar. The works were stolen during France’s colonial occupation of the Benin region. Despite the glowing headlines, the action was largely performative given how many cultural items France retained. According to a November 2018 New York Times article, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone houses 70,000 African art objects.

In April 2021, Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Grütters, after meeting with Nigerian officials, stated, “We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past.” She announced that the country will return a “substantial” portion of the Benin Bronzes held in German museums to Nigeria starting next year. Also that year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City pledged to return two Benin Bronze but drew criticism for not addressing the hundreds of other works from Benin that remain in its collection.

In March 2022 the Smithsonian Museum Art in Washington, D.C. agreed to transfer most of its thirty nine Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Then, in April 2022, the Glasgow City Council announced that museums in Glasgow, Scotland will repatriate 17 Benin Bronzes, along other artifacts, including 25 Lakota items, some of them seized from the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota.

Overall, compared to the thousands of requests, only a small number of African art objects have actually been returned by Western governments and museums. Furthermore, large institutions— most noticeably the British Museum—have opted out of the repatriation dialogue altogether.

In Bénédicte Savoy’s new book, Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, which was translated from German by Susanne Meyer-Abich, Savoy not only lays out the activities of the modern African art restitution movement but also describes the attempts by European museums to stop it through sabotage of restitution committees; retaliation against pro-restitution museum professionals; and obfuscation of museum collection contents. Savory shows that West Germany has been at the forefront of bureaucratic efforts to thwart the return of the stolen African art, and she uncovers coordinated actions to block African restitution claims.

The general stance of Western governments and museums has been that it’s irrelevant that they received African art items, many of them sacred, through force and pillaging. Moreover, they have maintained that they have no legal or moral obligation to repatriate these artworks to their origin countries. Private art dealers have also been opposed to the restitution movement. The market for the African art and artifacts that they sell would be greatly diminished if Western governments en masse enacted laws facilitating the return of stolen African art.

That Western governments and cultural institutions feel that they can dismiss the provenance of these stolen African artworks and then claim some sort of “universal” ownership as a means to keep them in their museums is the height of Caucasity.

There is no legal precedent for their position. For example, under U.S. law, “adverse possession,” which is applicable to real property, can only be argued when the true owner fails to make a timely claim for return of their property upon the squatter or usurper. With regard to their plundered art, African countries have been making claims for more than 50 years.

In preparation for the 1966 World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, a cultural event for Africa’s newly independent nations, Beninese writer Paulin Joachim asked Western museums to “liberate the black deities, which have never been able to play their role in the frosty universe of the white world where they are held captive.” His 1965 article appeared in the pan-African publication Bingo, a magazine based in Paris and Dakar and distributed throughout the Francophone world. Subsequently, European museums agreed to lend African artworks for an accompanying exhibition, but they would not discuss permanent restitution.

Historically, aristocrats used the art that they commissioned and collected from “primitive” societies to support the mythology of their divinely granted right to rule. Their descendants are attempting to keep the lie going by contending that they have an inherited right to keep art stolen from African homelands. Worse, the Europeans, after indiscriminately chopping up the continent and robbing African homelands of critical human capital and natural resources for generations, they deem African countries incapable of being responsible custodians of their own art. This skewed logic is akin to someone carjacking you and stealing your vehicle. You then lose your job because you had no way to get to work. When you ask the thief for your car back, he uses your lack of employment as the reason why he won’t return your vehicle—saying that you can’t properly take care of it.

The documentary concludes by showing the modern museums throughout the continent of Africa to counter the West’s characterizations that museums either don’t exist on the African continent or are nothing more than shacks if they do exist. However, if the lack of suitable museums or trained scholars was a sincere concern of Western museums and/or their governments, they could devise a variety of solutions to prepare African museums to accept their artwork back.

Among available options are:

  • paying licensing fees for the art to vetted African governments or NGOs for a contracted period of time to support the building and/or staffing of museums
  • partnering with existing museums in their former colonies to provide technical support
  • providing free education and training in Europe for aspiring curators, art historians, and essential museum professionals with the condition that they work in African museums for a set term
  • financially incentivizing African curators and scholars living in Europe to participate in designated professional exchange programs whereby they work for emerging African museums for several years.

For her latest exhibit, A Countervailing Theory, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojin Odutola not only breaks new ground artistically by using a black palette in her works but also thematically by imagining a new world with different landscapes, gender roles, and social norms. In a March 2022 interview with the Hirshhorn Museum, she says that she, as a “migrant,” was attempting to create a new mythology. Mythologies are essentially stories created by people to explain their world. The perspective of the narrator determines not only what’s right and wrong, but also who are the villains and who are the heroes of the story.

Odutola continues by discussing the importance of Africans reclaiming the right to tell their own stories. When asked about the Benin Bronzes, she stated that compounding the damage done by the thefts, the West has continually advanced the same “flat” narrative (including skepticism that Africans had the intellect and skill to create them), which she said “adds nothing” to world history or art history. However, the retelling of these “flat” narratives keeps alive the mythology of intrepid European explorers and brave military heroes liberating artworks from backward natives. The Europeans never intended to use the stolen art to tell the unglamorous truth that thieves and thugs purloined it through violence. Moreover, there’s been no great fervor by Europeans scholars to critically study African art, within an African historical and social context and/or to exhibit it in ways that validate African agency and intelligence.

It can be argued that the core of this horrific saga of hundreds of thousands of stolen African artworks are issues of sovereignty and ownership. Historically, these are rights only White men had the power to exercise. While the sovereignty of African countries is a foregone conclusion, former colonial powers are still unwilling to acknowledge the cultural sovereignty of their former colonies to own and do what they wish with their art and artifacts. Moreover, Europeans are still loath to admit how much of their so-called superiority in the form of financial wealth, artistic production, and cultural prestige was built on the backs of “savage” Africans from whom they freely extracted both blood and treasure.

Returning the African art and artifacts would be the final death knell in the Western mythologies of heroic greatness.

Although the tide is turning against them, history shows that imperialists rarely go out without a dirty fight.

The documentary is in French with English subtitles.

Documentary Information:

Episode 4 of AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange season 14. Streaming now on and


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YvonneYvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a former attorney, cultural critic and author of several popular books on popular culture.

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