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  • Desola Olaleye

An Existential Argument for the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

Helmet mask made of fibre and abrus seed c. 1960. Courtesy of the British Museum

In my latest essay published in The Republic, I draw on Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of art to make an existential argument for the restitution of African cultural artefacts. I argue that the utility of restitution rests on the ontological function of the cultural artworks being sought. Given the revitalisation and recent extension of the restitution movement, my essay is concerned with underlining the importance of understanding restitution not simply as the mere exchange of objects but, more importantly, as the restoration of consciousness in African societies which have suffered far too long from the effects of capitalism, imperialism, and epistemic violence. As the movement progresses, it is important to clarify what Africans can expect from restitution and what restitution can do to protect the spirit of African societies.

Below is an excerpt from my essay:

The politics surrounding the location of these artefacts is undergirded by tensions stemming from the fact that Africans have been robbed of their right to directly observe and enjoy evidence of their cultural contributions to the world. More so, Europeans have a history of stealing to build their own institutions and, thus, feel threatened by attempts to uncover the great extent to which these institutions are built on lies and theft.
Kwame Anthony Appiah opens his 1995 essay titled, ‘Why Africa? Why Art?’, with an Akan proverb that underlines the importance of location in the reclamation debate: ‘Tenabea nyinaa nse (All dwelling-places are not alike)’. Any person who reflects critically and sensitively on the rampant violence of colonialism should come to the realization that the placement of African artefacts in Western museums does not and can never bear the same significance as the rightful placement of these works within African museums. If these artworks remain in Western museums, they will endure a perpetual dislocation and an unfulfilled capacity to remedy what Cresa Pugh calls the ‘spiritual alienation’ of culturally oppressed people.
Following Heidegger’s claim that a work of art ‘opens up a world’, the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky argues that ‘to create a work of art is to be at work on the world; creating works…is one important way in which a world occurs [emphasis mine]’. African cultural artefacts, therefore, function as tellers of the worlds Africans have carved. This essence, this intrinsic value, is enough to justify their return to a continent likely to benefit from active reminders of its cultural accomplishments.
A fundamental truth at work in African cultural artefacts is that Africans have always been among the greatest sculptors of world history. Assessing the value of traditional African art through an enlarged spectrum of utility can help us advance and fulfil the emancipatory objectives that notable African thinkers have imagined of their work. An instructive example here is Chinua Achebe who, in his essay ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, said he would be ‘satisfied if [his] novels did no more than teach [African] readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them’.
Each step, however small or slow, towards reclaiming cultural artefacts forms a crucial part of Africans’ bold affirmation of their dignity and vibrant history. European institutions have a duty to fully admit their faults and accept that African history is interminable and cannot be rewritten as a European construct. The struggle for the restitution of Africa’s cultural heritage reflects the necessary undoing of imperial domination. It is not merely political but also existential—it is a fight for the spirit of Africa.

Please read the rest here.

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