Culture Minister on Africa 2020 cultural season and heritage cooperation
Cultural diplomacy – Forum on “African heritage: making a success together of our new cultural cooperation” – Speech by M. Franck Riester, Minister of Culture (excerpts)
Paris, 4 July 2019
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Next year, in accordance with the President’s pledge, France will host the “Africa 2020” season.
Next year the African continent, in its infinite diversity of cultures, will come and tell its story. It will tell us what it is, how it sees its future and how it wants to transform the world.
Right across France, “Africa 2020” will promote Africa’s rich, dynamic arts scene in all spheres of creative activity.
From June to December 2020, this season, conceived by NGoné Fall from Senegal and jointly put together with African partners, will offer our compatriots and all our visitors an unprecedented look at the contemporary world.
A bold, effervescent look, an Africa-style look.
It will be an opportunity for us to talk about the arts and research, education and teaching, innovation and gastronomy, the economy and sport too.
It will be an opportunity for us to talk about all these young talented people who convey a vibrant portrait of the African continent.
In short, we’ll be talking about the future. The future of a strong, confident Africa.
Young Africans want to embrace their history and have access to the heritage which has shaped their identities.
They obviously haven’t waited for us in order to do this.
If they wish, we can contribute to helping them.
The President, resolute in this approach, would like to make it easier for young Africans – in Africa – to have access to their own heritage and the common heritage of mankind.
The goal is clear, and he has asked the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs to make it a reality.
Our country is the guardian of a heritage formed of priceless masterpieces. Among this heritage, many masterpieces were created in Africa.
I’m not ignoring the complex web of interconnected histories we have with the African continent, but equally I know the strength of the ties which unite us, and our desire for a shared destiny.
For 60 years the Ministry of Culture has pursued the ambition, thanks to the museums, of making works of art and cultures speak across borders and eras.
It thrives on diverse expressions of the human spirit, mixing and transforming them. It is this ideal of universality which culture promotes.
Let’s remember the decisive influence the African continent’s arts have had on European artists. Picasso is just one example. Culture is a force for unity, for rallying and for openness.
For all these reasons, culture is at the heart of the new relationship of exchanges we would like to develop with the African continent.
A relationship of mutual enrichment, of sharing and trust. A proactive, realistic relationship. Our museums are ready to commit to this path and I know they will answer the call being made to them.
In this regard, nothing would be more narrow-minded than for museums to reflect only art created on their soil or by national artists.
So let’s not criticize our museums for being what they are. They showcase the world and artistic creation in its diversity. They are messengers of the universal.
They invite us to discover past and present civilizations, or look at them in a new light. With curiosity, generosity and respect.
So I’d like our museums to step up their exchanges with their African counterparts.
Let them share their masterpieces, let them loan or dispose of them, and circulate them, because no artists have ever wanted their creations to be exclusively for one time or place.
We’re entering a new era today. We must rethink our cultural relationship with the African continent.
Rethink it with our African partners to create new spaces for learning and exploring.
Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr’s report, presented to the President last November, is contributing to current intellectual debate. I’d like to pay tribute to them here and recall the important work done.
Accordingly, the President decided to return 26 works to Benin, claimed by that country’s authorities, which had been General Dodds’ spoils of war from [King] Behanzin’s palace in 1892.
We’ve been working with the Beninese authorities for several months now to make this commitment a reality and guarantee that the works are actually transferred.
France will look just as closely at requests made to it by other African countries. Beyond that, the new cooperation policy we need to build together can’t be narrowed down to the issue of returns alone.
We’d like to adopt a new approach to the whole issue of heritage cooperation with Africa.
The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture’s teams have been working for several months on an action plan which should enable us to forge a new partnership with the African continent.
A number of projects have been selected, and actions begun:
I’m thinking of the joint mobilization of the French Development Agency (AFD) and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs’ assistance funding for museums and heritage sites on the African continent. The Lalibela project in Ethiopia is a perfect example in this respect. I’d also like to thank Rémy Rioux, the Agency’s CEO, for his sympathetic ear.
I’m thinking of the European dialogue forged at the political and scientific levels on the Africa-Europe partnership;
I’m thinking of the work and joint proposals by the National Institute for Art History (INHA) and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac on provenance research and the history of collections;
I’m also thinking of public awareness-raising activities for musées de France (1) and of their future initiatives.
These projects tell us the course we’ve got to aim at for future initiatives.
This course will take us first to Benin, and the return of the 26 works I’ve just talked to you about.
So the remarkable set of statues, sceptres and thrones will be removed from national collections as soon as possible.
I’ve spoken to my opposite number, Oswald Homeky. He knows he can count on the Ministry of Culture’s active efforts to translate President Macron’s announcement into reality.
In April this year, a joint mission from the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture and Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac visited Benin and the authorities, and established links between heritage professionals from the two countries.
Experience sharing, scientific exchanges and political determination made it possible on this occasion to lay the groundwork for our partnership.
I’d like here to thank the Beninese government for the trust it has placed in France and the constructive discussions under way to achieve our objectives.
The return of works will be written into law.
The timetable still needs to be clarified, given the significant amount of legislation under discussion in Parliament.
However, the government would like this bill to be examined in a timeframe compatible with our Beninese partners’ legitimate expectations and requests.
Meanwhile, these 26 works must be able to be seen, admired and studied in Benin.
I’ve therefore asked my department and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac’s teams to work closely with our Beninese partners to find ways and means of actually returning them, particularly as part of a disposal.
This return could also provide an opportunity for an exhibition dedicated to these works’ diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness.
To see and increase understanding of the historical depth of these hugely important items.
Beyond this, a much broader policy of cultural exchanges must emerge.
This is the whole point of our discussions with the Beninese authorities, and a detailed programme of work is on the way to completion.
France, through the French Development Agency, has signalled its willingness to lend its support to the creation of a museum in the Royal Palaces of Abomey.
The museum will be an exceptional showcase for the works to be displayed there.
As you can see, the ties we’ve forged with Benin are a benchmark, which will be able to inspire other partnership policies in Africa.
At a time when the African continent is developing an innovative heritage policy, our training partnership will necessarily have to be fleshed out.
I would like this training to be built out of innovative, bold, long-term programmes.
We feel that, up to now, training programmes have often been too short to enable us to promote regular exchanges based on a broad range of skills from conservation to mediation.
The National Heritage Institute (INP) and the Ecole du Louvre (2) are going to implement a training programme for African partners wishing to take part.
From 2020, conferences will be able to be organized on the African continent and the two institutions will put in place new reception and training facilities for African interns.
The development of exchanges will enable us to draw inspiration from African knowledge and expertise to enrich our understanding of heritage worldwide.
I’m in favour of National Heritage Institute student conservators and restorers going to Africa as often as they can as part of their training.
Beyond this mobility, exchanges between professionals from France and Africa will allow us to improve the study of works of art.
They will also help develop how African heritage is showcased in musées de France.
Indeed, scientific work devoted to collections from the African continent conserved in French museums must be developed.
We must gain a better knowledge of all masterpieces from outside the Western world, because it is an honour for us to work in conservation.
In particular, extensive research will be conducted to try and determine the provenance of works and enable their complex history to be told. The public has to be able to understand it by means of appropriate museology and mediation.
I might add that liking these works and making them liked also means respecting their place in the societies which created them.
So the general public must have immediate access during their visit to tools for gaining historical, functional and contextual understanding.
The National Institute for Art History and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac are already engaged in these issues.
They’re working jointly to put in place a portal on the history and provenance of African heritage which will make databases available to the general public that have been added to by the two institutions.
All musées de France will benefit from this effort in the very near future.
A meeting will be organized in September to discuss issues to do with inventories, historical research and provenance and establish a museum network to address them.
I know that a good number of our European partners will get involved in this initiative.
Public institutions may be central to our cooperation projects, but I’d also like to direct what I’m saying today to all those involved in the art market.
Antique dealers, auctioneers, experts, collectors – all of them play a part in heritage knowledge and conservation.
They have made Paris the global capital of this art market sector.
Major special public auctions or events such as Parcours des mondes allow a wide public to understand arts from outside the Western world in non-museum surroundings.
I know that dealers and collectors have had concerns and even felt singled out by the debates initiated on African heritage.
So I’d like to reassure them about the State’s intentions. The State isn’t set to adopt restrictive measures relating to African heritage in private hands, or limit its circulation or trade.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before handing over to the speakers, I’d like to quote former president Jacques Chirac, who, at the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly, with which his name is now associated, expounded the philosophy which that unique place embodies: “no one people, no one nation, no one civilization represents or sums up human genius. Each culture enriches humanity with its share of beauty and truth, and it is only through their continuously renewed expression that we can perceive the universal that brings us together.”
It’s this very conviction which is the cornerstone of the cooperation policy we would like to develop together.
Today is a milestone because it has been put together with professionals in mind. But it’s only one stage – others will follow.
You can count on my personal commitment and that of my ministry to move forward in this direction.
I’m also counting on your active efforts to sustain and enrich this project.
I wish you all a very pleasant day and fruitful discussions./.
(1) Museums run or recognized by the State, and in receipt of priority funding.
(2) Higher-education establishment providing courses in archaeology, epigraphy, art history, the history of civilizations and museology.