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  • Is Repatriation Inevitable?
  • Allen F. Roberts (bio)

Debates about repatriation of human remains and significant cultural materials to their communities of origin, including objects deemed "art" following culturally determined assessments, have raged for many years. One need only consider how the "madness" of returning the famed fifth-century bce "Elgin Marbles," as they are known in the UK after the man who purloined them from the Acropolis in the early nineteenth century, is debated as an issue of contemporary politics in Britain, as has been the case for generations (Trend 2018). Yet there seems a sudden acceleration of such conversations with regard to sub-Saharan holdings (e.g., Scher 2018).

Perhaps most notable has been French President Emmanuel Macron's November 2017 declaration at the University of Ouagadougou that within the next five years, "conditions should be met for a return of African patrimony to Africa." This position was found "surprising to many" in France, Le Monde reported. In March 2018, President Macron named Bénédicte Savoy, an historian of French arts, and Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist, novelist, and theorist of Afrofuturism, to produce a plan to this effect before the end of 2018.1 Such news was well received in former French colonies like the Republic of Bénin, where calls have long been made for return of important sculptures and other artifacts seized during colonial conquest in the 1890s. President Macron has promised to see to changing the legislation that has long considered such works the inalienable property of the French Republic.2

Equally well-heralded initiatives are underway concerning loot from the Punitive Expedition of 1897 to what is now southwestern Nigeria, including the famed Benin Bronzes held at the British Museum and other institutions across Europe and the Americas. In an interview with The Guardian, Africanist art historian John Picton captures the conundrum:

The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity …

… presumably with regard to inclusion in encyclopedic histories composed for largely non-African audiences. "Concerns about security were … foremost in the minds of European institutions," Picton continues, and "there has to be a recognition perhaps that things are on long-term loan from Nigeria" (Quinn 2017).3 Who gets to decide what constitutes "security" is haunted by ongoing colonial notions of African "incompetence" and refusal to recognize that if, by some measures, certain African museums are "insecure" because treasures have been stolen and sold from their reserves, Africans are usually not the ones purchasing them or whose countries show disinterest in establishing bilateral agreements to prohibit such commerce.4

That such complexities have been readily ignored is a function of broader neocolonial strategies and colonial amnesia—the forgetting of inconvenient pasts.5 Nonetheless, ça commence á bouger un peu—things are beginning to "shake" just a bit and in unexpected ways, as attested by the denouement from the following case study from Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The case itself suggests how politically and culturally complicated repatriation can—and, perhaps, should—be.

lusinga in los angeles

Lusinga lwa Ng'ombe visited Los Angeles in 2013,6 despite the fact that this Congolese warlord was decapitated in 1884 by assassins dispatched by the Belgian military officer Émile Storms. A majestic wooden figure of Lusinga (Fig. 1), seized by Storms's mercenaries and transported to Belgium where it is now understood to be among the "treasures" of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), is invested with ancestral spirits of the chief and his matrilineage. When the sculpture was displayed in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Lusinga was present as well.7

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This figure, invested by the matrilineal ancestors of the Tabwa chief Lusinga Iwa Ng'ombe of what would...


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