What role can artists play in the global debate around the restitution of African cultural heritage, artefacts and human remains?
The repatriation of cultural goods removed from Africa (and other colonial contexts) has been an evolving topic since the 1970s. The 2018 report Africa’s Struggle for its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat by French academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy argues that the onus should be on European institutions to prove that objects were acquired legitimately, rather than on the communities of origin to legitimise their claims to objects. They propose a “radical practice of sharing” whereby these objects are meaningfully reinserted or “resocialised” back into communities of origin, coupled with ensuring the greatest possible access through the process of digitisation of these objects. This raises the question of what role artists might play in the process of “resocialising” these objects in their contexts of origin.
This question is at the centre of the long-term project by Group50:50 that engages with the restitution of cultural assets, the ghosts of the colonial era, the traumas of cultural cooperation and new forms of exchange between Europe and Africa. The project explores the role of artistic practices in the accelerating international debate around the restitution of African cultural heritage, artefacts and human remains, and imagining new rituals to accompany their return.
Group50:50 a collective of artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Switzerland and Germany that produce transnational artistic cooperation projects that address the history of globalisation, colonial domination of the African continent and neo-colonial practices of exploitation. The project was supported in part by a two-year To-gather grant from Pro Helvetia, which supports long-term collaborations that test new frameworks and methodologies for working internationally premised on more equitable and sustainable dialogue between cultures.
The project begins from a premise that connects the Group50:50 members’ home countries: In 1952, a Swiss doctor brought seven “pygmy skeletons” from the Congolese province of Ituri (today Haut-Uele) back to Switzerland and gave them to the University of Geneva for research purposes. Unlike other African skeletons and skulls, thousands of which still remain in the archives of European museums, the names, dates, causes of death and the approximate origin of the seven skeletons are known.
For the project, Group50:50 embarked on journey into the equatorial forest to meet the nomadic Mbuti people, who are threatened by illegal logging and being driven out of their home territory. Do they want to have the skeletons and spirits of their ancestors back? What is rarely considered in the debate on restitution is that, along with the masks, objects and skeletons, the spirits that the Europeans abducted and locked away in the colonial era also return. Using song and dance alongside the Mbuti, Group50:50 develop a ritual for the seven spirits – in the hope that they will find peace. The multimedia musical theatre piece “The ghosts are returning” is about (neo)colonial crimes, death and mourning.
In conjunction with the rehearsals and performances of the piece, Group50:50 in collaboration with Studio Rizoma Palermo invited artists, activists and thinkers from Europe and Africa to develop a foundation for a broad transnational restitution movement under the title “The time for denial is over”. Through lectures, discussions and interventions, the discourse programme explored artistic and political practices that promote and accompany the restitution of cultural artifacts and human remains, thereby redesigning transcontinental dialogue and cooperations.
The art historian Bénédicte Savoy become an important companion of the project and gave an address at “The time for denial is over” symposium in Leipzig. Ciraj Rassool, Professor of History and director of the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa became involved, advising the communities in Wamba on writing an official restitution claim for the seven skeletons addressed to the Universities of Lubumbashi and Geneva.
In Lubumbashi and Kinshasa, “The time for denial is over” symposium was co-curated by Centre d’art Waza, the Lubumbashi University and the University of Geneva, and revolved around the meeting of a delegation of four representatives from Wamba and Mbuti communities with the University of Geneva to discuss the repatriation of the seven skeletons.
Group50:50 is an artist collective from DRC, Switzerland and Germany as well as a production structure based in Basel, Berlin and Lubumbashi, committed to the realisation and production of transnational artistic cooperation projects. Group50:50 tell stories about historical and current economic and political interrelations between their countries, and demands the return of cultural heritage and reparations for colonial crimes and present-day human rights violations. The group addresses the history of globalisation, the colonial rule over the African continent and neo-colonial practices of exploitation of humans and nature to extract raw materials. Group50:50 critically reflects on the forms of their collaboration, which are disturbed by historical economic inequalities, cultural misunderstandings and unequal access to means of artistic production.