A little over half a century ago, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of post-independence Senegal, announced his plans to build a major museum of African culture in the country’s capital of Dakar. Senghor, who died in 2001, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Now, at long last, his vision is coming to fruition. As Kate Brown reports for artnet News, Senegal has opened a sprawling museum that celebrates black civilizations from across the globe—and experts are hailing the institution as an important step forward in the effort to reclaim African artifacts plundered during the colonial period.
The Museum of Black Civilizations, known in French as the Musée des Civilisations noires (MCN), is a 150,000-square-foot, circular structure, modelled after the traditional houses of Senegal’s Casamance region, according to Al Jazeera’s Amandla Thomas-Johnson. China was the main backer of the project, providing a $34 million funding boost, according to BBC. The country has invested billions of dollars into the continent—“China has long had an appetite for Africa’s abundant natural resources,” notes Yolaan Begbie of Africa.com—but the museum says its operations will be independent.
Inside the Museum of Black Civilizations, visitors will find ambitious displays spanning both centuries and continents. The exhibition “Cradle of Humankind,” for instance, looks back to human origins in Africa and features early stone tools. “African Civilizations: Continuous Creation of Humanity” delves into the history of masks and “the traditions of Sufism and Christianity in Africa,” according to Brown. Another exhibition hall, “The Caravan and Caravel,” explores how African communities in the Americas grew out of the slave trade. Among the contemporary artworks to appear in the new museum are pieces by the Cuban artist Elio Rodriguez, South Africa’s Andries Botha, and the Haitian artist Philippe Dodard.
The collections, however, are not complete. The MCN has room for some 18,000 artworks, but according to Aaron Ross of Reuters, many of the galleries are not filled.
Now more than ever, it seems possible that the empty space could one day be taken up by African artifacts currently held in European institutions. In late November, French President Emmanuel Macron received a landmark report—written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr—recommending that he move forward with his plan to fully repatriate African artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin during the colonial era. Senegal was one of the first countries to subsequently request the large-scale return of its looted objects.
“We are ready to find solutions with France,” Abdou Latif Coulibaly, Senegal’s culture minister, said, “but if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”
Senegal is not the only African nation to recently launch a new art museum; a major institution is also under construction in Nigeria, for instance. Scholars say that these museums help dispel one of the main arguments against repatriation: that African countries lack the necessary infrastructure to care for and preserve their artifacts. Each gallery of the MCN is equipped with climate and humidity controls.
“We can no longer say that Africans are not ready to receive new works,” says Abdoulaye Camara, researcher at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. “We now have all the cards in hand if works from Senegal, for example, were to be returned.”
But as Hamady Bocoum, director of the new museum, told Roxana Azimi of Le Monde in 2016, “We cannot be prisoners of what we do not have.” Until repatriation happens—if and when it ever does—the MCN is focused on collaborating with other institutions in Africa, cultivating international partnerships and highlighting the work of living African artists.
“This museum is a response to the aspirations of African children to better understand their memory and other cultures,” Ernesto O. Ramirez, assistant director-general for culture of Unesco, said during the museum’s opening ceremony. “It is also an important step towards the realization of an Africa with a strong cultural identity: a common heritage, values and ethics.”