Keynote held within the framework of the conference From Restitution to Repair on September 10, 2022 at Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, Berlin.
In a handful of European and African countries, since 2017, everything or almost everything seems to have been said about returning artworks looted by European colonial powers—in the regions of the world they occupied in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—to the respective country of origin. In 2021, the physical and legal return to Benin of the royal treasures of Abomey seized by the French army in 1892 and since exhibited in Paris, representing 2.5 tons of history and memory, marked the entry into a new era in the global geopolitics of African heritage. To date, more than 200,000 people have visited the exhibition Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation in Cotonou, Benin. Clearly, the tangible physical return of a historically and symbolically determining part of the history of certain countries is capable of triggering these “tectonic movements” described in 2018 in the Sarr-Savoy report, which go far beyond the sole field of culture and museums, affecting the economic, political, and societal spheres more generally. Now, some people are asking themselves: If everything has been said about restitutions, and if certain African countries have already won their case, then why bring the subject up again and again? Is it not patronizing, the sole concern of a small political elite, both in Africa and in Europe? What should we think of the obvious political instrumentalization of the subject, particularly in Europe? And how can we think about repair in spite of this?