One quote in particular in the New York Times article “What the Notre-Dame Fire Reveals About the Soul of France,” stood out to me. A Parisian stated, “it’s our roots, our history, our civilization. I think of the generations of artists who spent all their lives working on this monument to God, to belief.”
When Notre Dame caught fire, Parisians stood together and commented on how this building and its artifacts were more than just wood and stone. These relics were an enduring reminder of the Parisian people and their communities — or as the article’s headline so beautifully put it, their soul.
The idea that a people’s very essence can be found by studying their art made me reflect on my own home country, Nigeria. Today, in 2019, generations after colonization, there are still several thousand precious stolen African artifacts in France and the rest of Europe. The years of colonial looting have made it so that much of our art is not even in our country, and that our soul is fractured in pieces throughout Europe. What does that say about how we should try to understand our roots, our history, our civilization? How do we mourn our monuments when they’ve been gone for generations?
Maybe you’ve heard about these lost artifacts. They made the news last year when French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to return thousands of artifacts back to the continent — a decision met with much controversy, as some French citizens lashed out against what they saw as an emptying of their museums. Or maybe you noticed it during Killmonger’s entrance in “Black Panther,” pre-museum heist, when he criticized a worker in a British museum for her lack of knowledge on a stolen artifact from Benin.
The lack of respect and mistreatment of African artifacts has been on my radar for much longer. It is present in the way that I always internally wince when my friends skip over the African art section at the Met, and the way that I grew up in an educational system that told me my culture had never created anything worth remembering. For example, the popular historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said in 1963 that “Africans have no history,” since Africans had never created anything of “significance,” and were peoples still “in darkness.”
Why has Britain been able to keep bronze statues of the ancient Benin Kingdom, and why has France been able to keep looted textiles from the shores of West Africa? Why is it that 180,000 looted African pieces are kept in Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa? African artifacts are spread throughout Europe in private collections and museums, as African people grow up constantly told they are from a continent with no history. That is why the gesture of returning these artifacts back to their rightful countries is so urgently needed — it would be a remarkably rare recognition of African dignity from Europe. This kind of bold step would be an acknowledgement that African countries also have art, and have souls as valuable as their European counterparts — something many people still don’t believe.
A few months ago, I started crying at the African Art section in the Met. My friends had asked me something about a piece, and my answer winded down different roads until it became a discussion about Nigeria as a whole, and the stories of hope and loss and resilience that I know about my country, as well as those of the injustices it has faced. These were stories of how millions of would-be artists, poets and painters spent their lives picking cotton instead of creating cultural items that I would one day get to pick up and experience, before handing them down to my kids and they to theirs. These were stories of the thousands of artifacts that had been lost or destroyed during colonization. Often, I think about how the scale of these injustices is indescribable. I wonder how we should even begin to try and fix the losses, when the losses can’t even be put into words.
I hope France will take this time post-Notre Dame fire to reflect on the importance of heritage, and follow through on its promise to return African artifacts. I want people to take the sense of loss they felt at Notre Dame’s destruction as a reminder that culture and heritage are important. That perhaps one of the most overlooked, but still deeply crushing, aspects of colonization was how it spread the belief that certain types of art and culture were more valuable than others.
I want France, Britain and the rest of Europe to return my continent’s artifacts. I want them to put the souls of African countries back where they belong. I have been mourning the fracture of their souls — they, too, should mourn the fragmentation of mine.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 29, 2019, print edition. Email Sarah John at [email protected]