DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal has opened one of Africa’s largest art collections, one of a series of new museums on the continent that could eventually receive thousands of artefacts from European museums that were looted during the colonial era.
President Macky Sall opened the 148,000-square-foot Museum of Black Civilizations on Thursday in the capital Dakar. The four-storey structure combines the traditional form of a circular African village hut with a modern glass and wood facade that reflects back onto an outdoor plaza.
Inside, ancient skulls and intricately carved masks recall Africa’s status as the “cradle of humanity” while a series of stylized black-and-white paintings by Haitian artist Philippe Dodard recount slaves’ passage to the Americas centuries ago.
“Keeping our cultures is what has saved African people from attempts made at making of them soulless people without a history,” Sall said in a speech. “And if culture does link people together, it also stimulates progress.”
Although Senegal’s first post-independence president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, first conceived of a museum honoring black civilization almost half a century ago, its long-delayed completion thanks to Chinese financing comes at a critical moment for African art.
African governments are stepping up pressure on Western museums to return stolen artefacts following a French government report that urged mass restitutions of objects in France’s national museums that were seized during the colonial era.
Hundreds of thousands of artefacts - believed to represent some 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage - now populate exhibitions in European museums and private collections.
The Museum of Black Civilizations has room for about 18,000 works of art, although many of the galleries remain unfilled.
Besides Senegal, Nigeria and Benin are also opening new museums meant to serve in part as rejoinders to arguments by European museum directors that Africa lacks the facilities to care for the works.
“The Museum of Black Civilizations is part of a generation of museums that Africa is in the process of building ... so that the continent and its diaspora ... don’t cease defining their history,” said Ernesto Ramirez, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, at the ceremony in Dakar.
Macron announced after receiving the report by a Senegalese economist and French art historian that France would immediately return 26 artefacts requested by Benin in 2016. Additional countries, including Senegal and Ivory Coast, have since requested either permanent or temporary restitution.
Editing by Louise Heavens