Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home

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DAKAR, Senegal — The 19th-century sword rests in a glass case alongside a frail Quran in a spacious gallery where scrolls hang from the wall and soft religious chanting is piped in. The saber’s etched copper handle is shaped like a swan’s beak, with a ring at the end. Its leather sheath rests nearby.

The sword belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader in the 1800s in what is now modern-day Senegal. His quest to conquer nearby territories put him in armed conflict with France, which had its own takeover ambitions. The French colonialists eventually won and seized not just large swaths of West Africa but also the region’s treasures, including the sword. Like most artifacts from France’s African colonies, it wound up in a French museum.

But the sword is now back in Senegal — and the Senegalese would like to keep it here. It is one of the most important pieces on display at Senegal’s new Museum of Black Civilizations, which has opened its doors amid a heated discussion about Africa reclaiming art that was looted during the colonial era.

The scale of artifacts in question is staggering. Up to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. France alone holds 90,000 sub-Saharan African objects in its museums.

The 19th-century sword here is on loan to Senegal, which in 1960 gained independence from France. At the end of the loan period, it is due to return to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris.

“Or maybe this will be back forever,” said Hamady Bocoum, director general of the museum, with a laugh as he passed by the display inside the museum on a recent morning.

A report on African restitution delivered to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in November recommended that all objects that were removed from sub-Saharan Africa without the consent of their countries of origin and sent to mainland France be permanently returned, provided the country of origin asked for them.

Senegal, for one, is asking, said Abdou Latif Coulibaly, this country’s minister of culture.

“However many works there are in the Senegalese collections in France or anywhere else, we want everything back in Senegal, because these artworks are ours and should be back where they belong,” he said.

A set of treasures from Senegal was included on the list of objects that the restitution report said should be returned immediately. The sword of Omar Saidou Tall, also known as El Hadj Omar, topped the list.

The report also demanded the return of objects currently in the natural history museum in Le Havre, as well as jewelry and medallions held in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. About 10 objects, including a drum and a Quran are on loan to the Dakar Museum from Le Havre.

Some arts administrators in France have feared an emptying of entire halls in the Quai Branly, which has 70,000 sub-Saharan African artifacts.

“We cannot go to France and take them by force as they did in the days when they took them from our people,” Mr. Coulibaly said. “France, on the other hand, should help us identify artworks that originated in Senegal. We will then work together in bringing all of them back here.”

In November, Mr. Macron announced that he was giving back 26 African treasures plundered by French colonial forces in the late 19th century. The thrones, statues, palace gates and regalia belonged to what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey, a territory that is now part of Benin.

In building exhibits for the new museum, Mr. Bocoum, who is also an archaeology professor at Dakar’s main university, wants to set aside the ethnographic approach, reinventing displays, discourse and design to create a new kind of space for self-representation. Exhibits include “The Cradle of Humankind” and “Africa Now.” Another called “The Caravan and Caravel” tracks how new African communities abroad grew out of the slave trade.

The first of its rotating displays focuses on Haiti and Cuba, work “that enables us to have the back story of African history.”

If the timeline of African humanity were just one day, he said, colonization and slavery “were just one minute.”

“We should not forget that Africa existed before that and how Africa has contributed to the globalization of blackness,” he said. “What is important to us is to retrace the history of Africa until now.”

That theme is evident from the moment visitors step inside the new museum to be greeted by a towering, 22-ton rusting baobab tree. The displays of ancient skulls and bones of some of the earliest human relations, from Ethiopia and elsewhere, as well as tools and ceramics on early craftsmanship, pay homage to the origins of humankind.

The 18-meter tree, called “The Saga of the Baobab,” is by the Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié and an example of how Mr. Bocoum wants the museum to reflect the contributions of the diaspora. About 500 pieces from outside the continent include works from Philippe Dodard from Haiti and Elio Rodríguez from Cuba.

The museum, the grandest and most modern in the region, aims to celebrate black civilizations’ contributions across the world. Its creation was the vision of the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first post-colonial president. In the 1960s, Mr. Senghor helped foster the Negritude library movement that championed the idea of a shared identity among Africans across the world.

It is a peculiar twist that the museum finally came to fruition with the contribution of a $34 million gift from China, which is making new inroads into West Africa with donations and loans to governments eager for new infrastructure. A reminder that China foots much of the bill is noticeable in firefighting equipment spaced throughout the exhibit halls and labeled in Chinese characters.

Felwine Sarr, the co-author of the French restitution report (who is Senegalese), said the government of Senegal would soon formally ask for the restitution of the sword, which had been previously lent to Senegal in 2006 and 2008, as well as other items from the Musée de l’armée, Quai Branly, and Le Havre. Mr. Sarr

estimated that the number of artifacts Senegal would demand might total “a few dozen objects.” He said Senegal was not about to demand the return of all works of Senegalese origin at Quai Branly, which that museum has estimated at 2,249.

Not that the Dakar museum couldn’t house all of it. The museum’s 14,000 square meters of space (roughly 150,000 square feet) rebut the old position that Africa doesn’t have room to hold its artifacts that are now on display thousands of miles away.

“We can say now this museum can receive anything and everything taken away from Senegal,” said Ousmane Sène, director of the West African Research Center and a member of the museum board.

On a visit earlier this week, dozens of people — both locals and foreigners — were milling about. In one untraveled corner, grit from construction dust still scraped underfoot. The museum is free until February while finishing touches are applied.

Taken together, its exhibits can seem like a bit of a mishmash. A photo display of paintings on rocks from Chad and Algeria dating back thousands of years. A display on Pope John Paul II’s visits to the continent. Ivorian textiles hanging on walls and Malian bogolan mud cloth spread inside cases. A display of African masks alongside those from Mexico and China — an attempt to show the continent’s masks in a global context.

One hall includes a curved blue wall where skin-lightening products are spilled at its base; it’s a 2017 piece by Juan Andrés Milanes Benito, a Cuban artist living in Norway. It nods to a debate over the sometimes unhealthy practice of skin bleaching that in Rwanda has led to raids on pharmacies to confiscate dangerous cosmetics.

Also on display are the modern works of regional artists, including the wiry, iron sculptures from Ndary Lo, born in Senegal. The museum has a design workshop and a 150-seat theater for lectures.

On a recent morning, Yaya Ngom, a 53-year-old artist from Dakar who specializes in interior design, was perusing the new exhibits. He said most Africans know about their history and heritage only through books and documentaries — and most of those are rarely produced by Africans. The museum, he said, “is a significant turning point for us as a continent to be able to know about ourselves through our very own teachings and rewrite our own history through these objects.”

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