French president advised to return looted African art treasures

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the inauguration of the Beaux-Arts Museum of Besancon on Nov. 16. (AFP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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French president advised to return looted African art treasures

  • Calls have been growing in Africa for the restitution of their cultural treasures
  • Britain too has faced numerous calls to return artefacts to the countries they originate from

PARIS: Experts appointed by President Emmanuel Macron will advise him on Friday to allow the return of thousands of African artworks held in French museums, a radical shift in policy which could put pressure on other former colonial powers.
Calls have been growing in Africa for the restitution of their cultural treasures, but French law strictly forbids the government from ceding state property, even in well-documented cases of pillaging.
But in a speech in Burkina Faso in November last year, Macron said “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”
He later asked French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to study the matter, and they are to present Macron with their report on Friday.
According to a copy seen by AFP, they recommend amending French law to allow the restitution of cultural works if bilateral accords are struck between France and African states.
The change would apply in particular to works held in museums which were “transferred from their original territory during the French colonial period,” the report said.
“We propose changing heritage laws so that all types of cases can be taken into account, and the criteria of consentment can be invoked,” Sarr told French daily Liberation in an article posted late Tuesday.
Of the estimated 90,000 African artworks in French museum collections, around 70,000 are at Paris’ Quai Branly museum, created by ex-president Jacques Chirac, a keen admirer of African and Asian arts.
In order to proceed with any restitutions, “a request would have to be lodged by an African country, based on inventory lists which we will have sent them,” according to the report.
The prospect has raised hackles among some curators and art dealers who say it would eventually empty museums and galleries in some Western countries.
Critics also say the move could prompt private French collectors to move their works out of the country for fear of seizure.
European conservationists have also raised practical concerns, worrying artefacts could be stolen or handled improperly if given to inexperienced museums in politically unstable countries.
Britain too has faced numerous calls to return artefacts to the countries they originate from, including the Elgin Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
On Tuesday, the governor of Easter Island in the Pacific tearfully begged the British Museum to return one of its famous statues.
The London museum has held the Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s stone monoliths, for 150 years.


Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
Updated 47 min 17 sec ago
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Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.