Sub-Saharan Africa: How A Nation’s Heritage Remains Overseas

By Clara Cassan

By the end of the 1800s, France controlled the second-largest colonial empire in Sub-Saharan Africa. During this time, the French extracted, most often through theft, African artifacts to add to French art collections and museums for “preservation purposes.” France ultimately believed these objects would be “safer” out of African hands. Although these past colonies have progressively reclaimed their freedom, the continent is still deprived of nearly 95 percent of its heritage, with over 90,000 Sub-Saharan African objects remaining in France today.  

The Sarr-Savoy Report

In November 2018, Senegalese and French scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy published The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Toward a New Relational Ethics (Sarr-Savoy Report), a series of legal, diplomatic and ethical recommendations to the French government. One year later, Columbia University organized an international symposium that gathered the authors and other influential advocates to review the impact the Sarr-Savoy Report has had thus far and the challenges that still exist.

Cultural heritage refers to the tangible (artworks, monuments, objects), intangible (performing arts, rituals, oral traditions), and natural.  An act of restitution occurs after an illegitimate acquisition and entails the return of possession to its rightful owner.

As Sarr and Savoy imagined solutions to restitute African heritage, they found that most colonial objects were “removed during an era where there was no… regulations to control such removal.” Moreover, until the end of World War II, colonialism was largely accepted as a diplomatic strategy. Current international texts such as the Hague Conventions (1954), which enforced the obligation to protect state parties’ cultural heritage by prohibiting theft, looting, and misappropriation, or UNESCO’s 1970 Convention, are not retroactive.

Cultural Discontinuity & Restitution

However, without restitution, thousands of African cultures may disappear. Sarr and Savoy note that some “communities have…begun to lose any remaining knowledge of [their] cultural heritage.” These indirect victims are what the authors call the “descendants of an amnesic past.” And with 60 percent of Africa’s population being younger than 25, cultural amnesia may propagate more quickly than we think.

Past research on Canada’s First Nations revealed that “cultural discontinuity,” colonialism’s destruction of a community’s sense of identity and functionality, puts its individuals’ sanity at risk. For instance, indigenous communities that experienced cultural discontinuity report suicide rates 800 times above the national average. 

Some scholars or European art market professionals argue against restitution, clinging to art’s universality and the benefits of its circulation for humanity. Artistically, globalization can lead to shared values and broadened visions. Yet this should not discount the importance of nationality; people must have a sense of identity before they can reject it or truly understand others. The idea is not to create a different kind of nationalism where African objects would strictly remain in Africa. Instead, the report aims at re-balancing Sub-Saharan heritage by giving countries the option to choose permanent restitution. According to the report, bilateral agreements between France and the countries in question will enable parties to moderate the quantity and speed of their repatriations sovereignly. Ultimately, the hope is that African countries “secure the objects important to them,” and once restituted, these objects can travel within public institutions to serve educational purposes. 


French legislation remains the largest challenge listed in the report. The “inalienability principle” prohibits the government from concluding sales pertaining to its public domain with a private entity or another state, even if this property was illegally acquired. In their report, Sarr and Savoy drafted a legal exception that allows African countries to formulate detailed restitution requests; however, this proposal is still pending before the French Parliament. 

Until France modifies its legislation, restitution will be disguised as long-term loans. The report has raised awareness, but political pressure must persist until further action is taken. Progress will require compromise and, mostly, letting go of the past.

Clara Cassan graduated with two master’s degrees from the Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris) in International Law and Art Market Law. More recently, she earned an LL.M. from Fordham Law School. This article is part of a larger academic paper she wrote for her Art and Cultural Heritage Law class at Fordham. Clara is a French American and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.