'Titanic' task of finding plundered African art in French museums

With tens of thousands of African artworks in French museums, curators face a huge task in trying to identify which of these were plundered during colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries and should be returned.

During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return "African heritage to Africa" within five years, pushing other former colonial powers, including Belgium and Germany, to launch similar initiatives.

In 2021, France repatriated 26 royal treasures its soldiers took from Benin during colonial rule.

The effort has stalled, and in March the government indefinitely postponed a bill authorising the return of African and other cultural artefacts following right-wing resistance in the Senate.

French museums are nonetheless studying the origins of some 90,000 African objects in their archives.

Most – 79,000 – are in the Quai Branly museum in Paris dedicated to indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

The task is "titanic and exhilarating", said Emilie Salaberry, head of the Angouleme Museum, which houses around 5,000 African objects.

"It's turned upside down how we understand our collections," she told AFP.

'Real investigative work'

Identifying an object's provenance is becoming central to museum work, but tracking down the necessary information is hard and time-consuming.

France's Army Museum began its inventory in 2012 but has only been able to study around a quarter of its 2,248 African pieces.

Read more on RFI English

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