Ferdinand de Jong
(University of East Anglia)
Paper long abstract:
In December 2018, the Museum of Black Civilisations finally opened its doors to the public. Realising a project initially launched by the Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1966, the museum is a belated materialisation of his Negritude philosophy. But the museum's realisation is also a timely response to the current restitution debate initiated by the French President Macron. One year after the publication of the Restitution Report, France formally returned the sabre of El Hadj Umar Tall to the Museum of Black Civilisations. Exploring the potential of restitution to address the effects of colonialism, this paper examines restitution as an act of repair in a context of neo-colonial diplomacy.
The notion of repair has recently been adopted by a range of postcolonial authors, drawing largely upon the work of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia. The notion of repair departs from usual models of reparation in that it acknowledges the trauma and does not prescribe a return to the original. Applying this notion to the restitution of the sabre of El Hadj Umar Tall reveals that, whilst alerting us to the possibilities and parameters of restitution, it privileges an ethical dimension to the process or repair that ignores or disavows the politics that inevitably determine the process of restitution. In this case, the process of restitution of a sabre facilitated a conference on peace-keeping. Ostensibly serving repair, the restitution was deployed to facilitate the military suppression of a contemporary holy war.
If the notion of restitution is to be expanded to include the wider process of knowledge production, then restitution should certainly also include the wider political process in which objects are returned. In the case of the restitution of the sable of El Hadj Umar, this wider process involved the construction of the new Museum of Black Civilisations by the Popular Republic of China. This means that the restitution should be understood as facilitating a geo-politics of resource extraction that funds a Pan-African politics of heritage production, in which the colonial past of one empire is repaired in the process of building another. The process of restitution may be conceived as part of the decolonisation of knowledge yet involves the creation of South-South relations that are equally a-symmetrical.
Decolonizing African heritage inside and outside the African continent [initiated by the University of Mainz, with Leiden University/Anthropology, University of Rwanda]