Early activists in the fight for restitution of African art
More than fifty years ago, the Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo (born 1944) produced a short film that would have a significant influence on the way European museum collections of African art were perceived, and on how the topic of restitution was approached by African activists and artists. In You Hide Me, Owoo offered a glimpse into the immense collection of cultural artefacts from Africa that the British Museum called their own, asking the questions to whom these objects actually belong, and where and how they should be exhibited. Whereas the film was scarcely available some years ago, it can now be streamed online thanks to the June Giovanni Pan-African Cinema Archive.
The first sequence of the film shows a young black man and a young black woman entering the storage facility of a museum. A voice in the off explains the scene to the viewer: “This is the basement of the British Museum. This is where they keep their vast collections of African art, tools, furniture, musical instruments and clothes. We are going to have a look at what they have in their collections.” The following sequences show Owoo and his colleague Margaret Prah as they open cupboards, boxes and plastic bags, revealing numerous masks, statues, jewellery and other artworks.
As the protagonists hold objects up to the camera and marvel at the immense hidden collections, the narrator contextualises the scene with information on the colonial history of African collections in European museums. The short film ends with a forceful plea: “We the people of Africa and of African descent demand that our works of art, which embody our history, our civilisation, our religion and culture, should immediately and unconditionally be returned to us.”
An explosive documentary
When it was released in 1970, You Hide Me was one of the first artistic interventions concerning the restitution of cultural property. It problematised the fact that many European museums possessed vast collections of cultural artefacts originating from former colonies all over the world. Having been amassed during the colonial era by European officials, merchants, collectors and travellers, these objects were removed in a context of violence, racial and social discrimination, political oppression and economic inequities. Once they arrived in European museums, they were often not even put on public display, but stored in some remote facility, as in the case of the British Museum.
Owoo’s film expressed the negative sentiments towards European museum collections felt by many in recently decolonised countries, especially in Africa and Asia but also in some Latin American countries that had gained independence in the early nineteenth century. The filmmaker’s demand for restitution was not an isolated initiative by a single African artist. To the contrary, Owoo belonged to a group of globally connected public intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists who from the 1960s onwards demanded that cultural artefacts that had been brought to Europe during the colonial period be returned to their countries of origin. From their perspective, the process of decolonisation had not ended with the independence of colonised countries – and the fight for restitution played an important role in it.
In a later interview with Vertigo Magazine, Nii Kwate Owoo explained the film’s difficult production circumstances. He and his team had to work under pressure, as they were allowed to spend just one day in the museum, and throughout the shoot they were “under the scrutiny of 15 security officers.”
The film was produced as part of Owoo’s studies at the London Film School, and its premiere at the Africa Centre in London provoked quite a controversy. After its release, the film was temporarily banned from being shown on Ghanaian state television – for potentially jeopardising the ‘cordial relationship’ between Ghana and Great Britain. You Hide Me was nonetheless met with great interest in Europe as well as Africa, where it was shown at film festivals all across the continent. Even as recently as 2017, Ghana’s African Film Society organised a public screening of the film in a park in Accra, followed by a debate and Q&A with Nii Kwate Owoo himself.
The longer arc of decolonisation
The efforts of activists like Owoo and the ensuing intense debates within former colonies on the topic of restitution catalysed the emergence of an international conversation and ultimately of a political movement. Although the 1960s and 1970s marked the end phase of political decolonisation, with most former colonies gaining independence, many countries of the Global South strove for a realignment of postcolonial power structures during the Cold War. Establishing their position between the two dominating blocs, they organised under the roof of the Non-Aligned Movement and in international organisations like UNESCO, pursuing an anti-imperial agenda which aimed for political equality, the redistribution of economic power – and cultural sovereignty. Owoo’s activism is an example of how the fight for the restitution of artefacts in European museums was intertwined with issues of cultural decolonisation among former colonies all over the world, especially in Africa.
Only recently has the global push for the restitution of cultural artefacts from the 1960s onwards become an object of historical research. An example is a new book by the renowned art historian and advocate for restitution, Bénédicte Savoy. However, the fight for restitution has yet to be explored as a constituting element of the history of decolonisation. The reason for this is that historical research on decolonisation often does not look further than the political independence of colonised states. In the eyes of those fighting for restitution, however, this activism is part of the still ongoing process of decolonisation.
Dario Willi is a PhD researcher in the Department of History and Civilisation. His thesis explores the history of global knowledge production on restitution and its connection to decolonisation movements in the second half of the twentieth century.
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