Filmmaker and writer Mafundikwa says the Notre Dame fire is a teachable moment beyond France.
It’s unfortunate that there was a fire at Notre Dame but I hope that a part of the outcome is that the French realize what it means to lose symbols of culture and heritage, and return stolen African artifacts that France is holding in its museums.
I have traveled in Francophone African countries, as well as Haiti and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Having seen firsthand what colonial France did in the African world and its continued refusal to pay reparations, and how these countries and people still grapple with the effects of centuries of slavery and colonialism, I don’t feel alarm over a fire at Notre Dame any more than I do about saving the ancient libraries of Timbuktu in Mali. Ironically, the Western press gave extensive coverage of this symbol of France, but little coverage about the ancient places that are being bombed in Syria.
A few years ago, I visited Foumban, Cameroon, the location of the kingdom of the Bamum people. There, I found a profound appreciation for Africa’s history; people there trace the Kingdom’s history back to the 14th century. Foumban fell under French colonial rule in the early twentieth century. King Njoya, its innovative leader who had invented a writing system, was deposed, the palace sacked, and many artifacts taken back to France.
When I visited, the former palace was a sparse museum holding a few duplicates of artifacts. Most of Foumban’s artifacts, including King Njoya’s throne, were in museums in France and Germany. My joy of visiting Africa, the source of my cultural heritage, was mixed with a profound sense of loss. Three years ago, while visiting London, I saw the Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. They are exquisite brass and bronze sculptures depicting the heads of people from the Royal Palace of Benin. There was an overwhelming sense of affirmation and pride, seeing these works of genius. Remembering Foumban, I thought about what they would mean in their country of origin. The Bronzes had been safeguarded in the kings palace for over 500 years before the British looted them.
Art holds profound meaning to a culture. Notre Dame means a lot to the French, as demonstrated by the responses to the fire at Notre Dame, just as African art, music, artifacts hold deep meaning to Africans and their descendants. They symbolize the best of us.
There have been increasing requests from African countries to France and other European nations to return their stolen artworks and artifacts that are being held in European museums. In response, last year, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report on African artwork held in French museums. The authors of the report, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French Historian Bénédicte Savoy, travelled to Mali, Benin, Senegal and Cameroon, and catalogued African artifacts being held in France. The report noted that 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently outside the continent. There are 90,000 works of sub-Saharan art being held in France’s public collections. They called for the return of thousands of African artworks in French museums.
The report urged that unless it can be proven that the objects were received legitimately, they should be returned to Africa permanently. The French president responded by agreeing to return 26 works of art to Benin, including a life-sized iron sculpture from the Royal Palace of Benin that had inspired Picasso’s work and Cubism in Western art. This token is not enough. France must return all its stolen African art and artifacts, without conditions, as advised by its own commissioned report.
Karen M. Mafundikwa is an independent filmmaker and writer. She’s directed and produced many award-winning films including the ground-breaking documentary feature, film The Price of Memory about the slavery reparations movement in Jamaica. The film has screened in film festivals across North America, UK, Europe, the Caribbean and Middle East. It won the Impact Award at Caribbean Tales International Film Festival 2015 and was nominated for several awards including Best Long Documentary at Al Jazeera Documentary Festival 2015. She also wrote and produced the documentary feature Shungu: The Resilience of a People following ordinary people in Zimbabwe during the period of record-high inflation and political stalemate. She currently has several projects in progress, including a documentary film about Mama G, the ground-breaking “Gaamaa” or Paramount Chief of Jamaica’s Maroons.