Reversal of the gaze Epistemic violence, epistemic reconciliation, response-able knowledge production

8. January 2019

by Souad Zeineddine

The reversal of the gaze – whether in anthropology or in art history –, is neither a banal nor a simple undertaking. Both the ability to reverse the gaze and the practiced reversal of the gaze are necessary conditions for the critical inquiry of the interrelatedness of contemporary power relations and the production of knowledge. Reversing the gaze is not just a productive mode of knowledge production but goes hand in hand with taking on the ‘response-ability’[1] (Haraway and Kenney 2015: 256-257) for past-present-future knowledge production, circulation, mediation and accessibility of knowledge in its various forms.

„Der/Die Europäer/in wird selbst zum Objekt des Blickes und Gegenstand der Darstellung. […]. Die Verfremdung des Eigenen, die uns in diesen Skulpturen begegnet, ist manchmal komisch, manchmal verstörend.“
(Brus 2017: 123)

Unsicher blickte ich mich um, […] mehr Objekt der Beobachtung als Beobachter.“
(Zillinger 2013: 17)

These quotes, whether implicitly or explicitly, state that the production and mediation of knowledge give rise to similar emotions as those brought out by the debate on restitution that is currently fore fronted in the global arena. Taking into account the multiple vulnerabilities and including the manifold emotions that are explicitly sometimes implicitly articulated and negotiated in the debate, I would like to make a transgenerational and interdisciplinary contribution to the restitution debate. This might be an overambitious and possibly daring attempt, but let us see where it takes us…

moreReversal of the gaze Epistemic violence, epistemic reconciliation, response-able knowledge production

The ‘Restitution Report’ First Reactions in Academia, Museums, and Politics

18. December 2018

by Margareta von Oswald

This review gives an overview of the first reactions to the so-called ‘restitution report’ handed in to French president Emmanuel Macron on Nov 23, 2018 by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy[1]. The debate and reactions in politics, museums, academia, but also from the art market have been polarized and emotionally charged. Starting with first reactions in France, the review then gives an overview of the official responses by museums and politics in different European and African national contexts. After that, it attempts to resume how the report has been debated, challenged, and commented, notably in academia. Due to the quantity and speed of publications and reactions in circulation, this review can only present a selection of arguments and articles.

moreThe ‘Restitution Report’ First Reactions in Academia, Museums, and Politics

“The truth is that Europe has taken something from us, which it will never be able to return”*

11. December 2018

by Achille Mbembe

*Translation from French by Michael Dorrity

Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr have finally delivered President Emmanuel Macron with a report concerning the restitution of African objects currently held in French museums. For understandable historic reasons, Emmanuel Macron had limited the reach of the mission to previous territories over which the Republic had exercised responsibility. It would be difficult to reproach him for not having extended it beyond the zone of colonial influence in Africa.

Neither was the goal of the mission to attend to the acquisition of patrimony resulting from pre-colonial intra-African conflicts. The resolution of such disagreements where they exist is incumbent upon Africans and Africans alone.

Sarr and Savoy’s report proposes a series of honest, reasonable and realistic recommendations and its gradual implementation requires a sustained critical dialogue between French and African museums. In the absence of preconceptions or prejudices, such a dialogue could open new avenues toward a cultural Franco-African encounter of global significance.

Beyond the material restitution of artefacts, the objective of the report, as the authors have incessantly pointed out, is to recreate the conditions for a relationship based on reciprocity and mutuality. It is not a question of emptying French museums, as has been insinuated by certain malevolent critics. It is a question of rectifying a historical wrong and offering France the opportunity to establish a relationship with Africa built on different foundations, for the sake of what ought to be called the good of the world.

Regurgitating prejudices

Although the tonality of the report and its conclusions have been positively received by Africans – primary protagonists in this historic conflict–, they have already provoked innumerable debates and controversies outside the continent. With the help of the English translation, the dispute is no longer limited to mainland France.

While the majority of criticisms are muffled, even paternalistic, others are severe and others still, though hidden behind a mild academic veneer, are simply opportunistic. The most strident come from the United States and the Anglo-Saxon world. They are essentially of an ideological nature, tainted with the habitual disdain for Africa and all things African. The procedure is more or less the same in each case, it consists in paying lip service to the principle of restitution while consistently attempting to neutralise its transformative impact.

After the customary genuflection, there follows a lengthy discussion of all the supposed negative consequences entailed by restitution for Western museums whose last line of defence is what the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne calls “overhang universalism” (universalisme de surplomb). The damage already suffered by Africa as a consequence of the confiscation of its objects as well as the damage incurred by non-restitution are quickly passed over in silence.

Numerous critics are content to merely regurgitate the same prejudices that the report meticulously refutes. Such is the case with legal prejudice, in the name of which many recur to diverse variations of the European cultural heritage legislation to demonstrate that rarely is authorisation given for the return of objects to their rightful owners. Nobody would dare to deny that these objects were created by Africans. And yet we act as though the question of whom they belong to in no way depends on knowing where they came from and who produced them.

Pillage, extortion, predation

In line with colonial cynicism, a cleavage is made between legal property, ownership and usage on the one hand, and the creative act and the subject who creates on the other. The critics of the report highlight in particular that it does not automatically suffice to have created something in order to be its owner. And just as creating something is not equivalent to owning it, the origin of a work is not a sufficient condition to exercise property rights over it.

It is similarly assumed that the conditions under which these objects were acquired weren’t the least bit problematic. To this effect, the proven facts of pillage, extortion and predation are minimized and one pretends as if we were dealing, from beginning to end, with transactions between equal parties on a free market, where the worth of objects was determined by an objective pricing mechanism.

They thus come to the conclusion that having been put to the market test, these objects are effectively “inalienable.” They are presumed to be the exclusive property of public authorities (which manage them through the museum institutions) or of private individuals who, having purchased them, are entitled to use them fully and without restriction in strict accordance with the law. From a legal point of view, the debate over the restitution of African objects thus has no subject, their presence in Western museums barely being the result of confiscation and as such requiring neither moral nor political judgement.

Others (or sometimes the same) claim that Africa would not have the institutions, infrastructures, technical or financial resources, qualified personnel or know-how to insure the preservation and conservation of the objects involved. To return these collections to such inhospitable environments would expose them, we are assured, to the risk of destruction, vandalism or despoliation.

Diversion strategies

In other words, Africans would be incapable of taking care of the objects, which they produced and which accompanied their collective lives for centuries before European penetration of the continent. The safeguard of universal heritage would thus demand that we oppose the principle of restitution. The best way to do this would be to conserve African objects in Western museums apart from occasionally lending them to Africans for temporary exhibitions.

Posing the problem of restitution in this way is part of a strategy of diversion and evasion used by those who are convinced that the winner is always right and that force creates law. Opposition to the project of restitution recommended by the report is at times insidious, at others frontal. In either case, the point of the strategy is to empty the concept of its operative force by neutralising any disruptive effects.

The aim is also, particularly for criticism from across the Channel and the Atlantic, and to some extent from institutional and racist milieus in countries such as Germany and Belgium, to smother at birth the international impact, which Macron’s initiative could have not merely on the art market but also on a conceptual, juridical, social and even epistemological level.

How to prevent the trivialisation of such an eminently political and moral cause other than by turning our backs on such a cynical conception of law and returning to the essentials? Indeed, in this case, as in so many others, the function of law is precisely not to sanctify relations of force and extortion. It is to serve justice. There is hardly a law, which could be said to be completely detached from its obligation to serve justice. Wherever law is not in the service of justice, it should be amended.

A practically incalculable loss

Moreover, any authentic policy of restitution is inseparable from a capacity for truth; to honour the truth and thereby create the indispensible foundation of a new bond and a new relationship. The truth is, that for a relatively long time we have been the warehouse of the world, at once its vital source of provisions and its despised subject of extraction.

Thus, of all the human beings on earth, we are the only ones to have been, at a particular point in modern history, reduced to the status of commodities. Who could honestly deny that what was taken was not merely objects but with them enormous symbolic deposits, enormous reserves of potential?

Who does not understand that in paying such heavy tribute to the world, something colossal, almost priceless, has been lost forever? Something which the lives of all our objects in captivity have witnessed, just as it has been witnessed by all those of us incarcerated in the prison landscapes of yesterday and today?

Who does not understand that the appropriation of African treasure on such a massive scale constitutes an immense, almost incalculable loss? Who does not understand that such a loss could not be compensated with mere financial indemnification, given that this loss is the draining of our ability to create worlds, to create other figures of common humanity?

An intractable racist superiority complex

In spite of appearances, history has never been a simple question of power and force. Thus, there is no more powerful nor enduring force than the truth. The truth is that Europe has taken something from us, which it will never be able to return. We will learn to live with this loss. Europe, for its part, must learn to accept its deeds, this shady part of out common history, which it seeks to relieve itself. But if new links are to be forged, it must honour the truth for the truth is the midwife of responsibility. This debt of truth cannot be erased.

The time for sidestepping, procrastination and political schizophrenia has passed. For one cannot, on the one hand, turn the page, close a dubious chapter and move on in the relation with Africa while, on the other hand, confiscating its objects and thereby sustaining an intractable racist superiority complex, which appears to be undergoing a thorough revival all over the globe.

Moreover, one cannot, on the one hand, confiscate these works while on the other hand claiming that they are a burden for museums, that their preservation is expensive and that they are of no interest to anyone anyway.

One must make up ones mind.

Restitution can be neither a merely charitable nor benevolent gesture. The restitution of African objects to Africans is an obligation, the beginning of a new system of circulation, without conditions and on the whole planet, of the general heritage of humanity.

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual. Since 2001 he is a Research Professor of History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Romance Studies at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University. He has also held appointments and fellowships at Columbia University, Berkeley, Yale University, the University of California and Harvard University.

Achille Mbembe’s research interests lie in the social sciences and African history and politics. More precisely, Mbembe investigates the “postcolony” that comes after decolonization. He is especially interested in the emergence of “Afro-cosmopolitan culture”. Among Mbembe’s most important works are: Les jeunes et l’ordre politique en Afrique noire (1985); La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1920-1960); Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (1996); De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (2000); Sortir de la grande nuit : Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (2003); Critique de la raison nègre (2013). His seminal work De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (On the Postcolony) was translated into English in 2001 and published by the University of California Press.

This article was first published in French in the newspaper Le Monde and was translated for this blog.

Whoever’s Right Remarks on the Debate about Provenance and Return from the Perspective of Social and Cultural Anthropology

6. December 2018

by Larissa Förster

Translation: Mitch Cohen


In the debate about colonial provenances and the restitution of objects from German museums to formerly colonized countries there is always an elephant in the room. The elephant is the law – when we are dealing with a “context of injustice”, the question whether this is or should be justiciable, and when a museum item must therefore be returned. Many complain about the lack of legal instruments to place returns on a juristically solid basis. For this reason, some engage in legal dodges, others let political bodies decide, and yet others plead for a “Washington Declaration” for the colonial era or want to change customary legal practice with “Third World Approaches to International Law”. Much is thus written about colonial legal orders, about the development of international law, hard law, and soft law, about German public and private law, earlier and today.[1]

moreWhoever’s Right Remarks on the Debate about Provenance and Return from the Perspective of Social and Cultural Anthropology

Everything Must Go: Looting the Museum as Compensation for Looting the World Raubkunstforschung als angewandte Wissenschaft

28. November 2018

by Erhard Schüttpelz

Preliminary Remarks on: Felwine Sarr/Bénédicte Savoy, „The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics“ (November 2018).

Marx was right, but we can delve deeper into his famous dictum from „The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“. History does not repeat itself by alternating from tragedy to farce. Farce is the covering of tragedy, i.e., its being and its mask. The development of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is a tragedy that hasn’t only now taken on the form of farce, but that was prepared by many little tragicomic travesties, and will be accompanied by several more. But even this capital tragicomedy pales in comparison with the art historical Chernobyl Accident of the decade, the „Report“ written by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy for Mr. Macron. In the following lines, I try to devote myself to the tragedies involved in this „report“ to make the travesty more recognizable. There are many people in the fields of museum curating, anthropology and post-colonial exhibitions that could write a better commentary than I am able to assemble in the first rush of anger and perplexion. The only reason I have started writing this text is, that I have witnessed the ambivalence of others like myself. After all, is this not a historical landmark (or landslide) report? Are our sympathies not with all those who were robbed, humiliated and disinherited under colonial rule? And indeed, from what I can tell, museum people are behaving cautiously and act like diplomats, after all, they are depending on political decisions too; anthropologists do sympathize with the radicalism and the „payback“ promised after centuries of power abuse, and they think of the possibilities of the dispossessed being compensated for material and immaterial losses; nobody wants to be called a colonialist; and some older anthropologists have admitted defeat in the face of a new epoch that flies in the face of everything they stood for and the scholarly authority they could take for granted. And I feel like that too, sympathizing with the radicalism and the „payback“ offered after centuries and in the presence of power abuse. But that should be no reason to accept a proposal that is full of inconsistencies and injustice, uninformed and actively distorting history.

Please compare Nicolas Thomas’ passages in:



  1. This report is not about looted art, it is about looting museums in the name of historical justice. That is, in the name of a concept of historical justice.
  2. The museology in this report is pseudo-museology. The history written in the report is pseudo-history.
  3. The legal principles of this report are against traditional principles of law. And they don’t try to acknowledge the legal conceptions of source communities either.
  4. The report is not about the restitution of property, but about getting rid of inalienable property, and especially about getting rid of the concept of inalienability.
  5. Making inalienable property into profane property means making it commercial property: the report creates a new art market (and a potentially violent art market too).
  6. If you give up the custody of scientific scholarship for political reasons, the artefacts will be political artefacts, and they will be disinherited many more times.
  7. If you give up the heritage of anthropological museums, you are not turning artefacts into art: you are preparing for historical amnesia, and for anthropological amnesia.
  8. If you put this report into practice, tragedy will be performed as travesty, and travesties will be parts of tragedies.



A Human Skull for Sale: Is this possible?

20. November 2018

by Sarah Fründt and Oliver Lueb

On Oct. 18, 2018, under a title that translates as “Someone who buys something like this must be a bit crazy”, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published an interview with the business manager of the auction house Lempertz, Prof. Henrik Hanstein. The talk, conducted by Jörg Häntzschel, addressed an auction held on Oct. 24 in Lempertz’s Brussels branch, at which human remains (a shrunken head from the Jívaro, who live in the Amazon Basin near the border between Ecuador and Peru, and several ancestors’ skulls from Oceania) along with objects of clear colonial provenance were sold. Lempertz’s homepage showed the catalog and openly depicted all the items up for auction. Particularly considering the discussion of the colonial legacy conducted on almost all levels in recent years, not only the auction house’s plans, but also many of the statements made in the interview led to consternation in specialist circles as well as among a broader public.

more “A Human Skull for Sale: Is this possible?”

Empirical notes on the exhibition “L’Un et l’Autre” (One and the Other) Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2018

6. November 2018

by Anna Seiderer

“It is so much easier if you are an art museum!”[1]

In the framework of the conference Exchanging perspectives: anthropologies, museum collections and colonial legacies between Paris and Berlin[2], I was asked to give an overview on the institutional changes of Parisian art museums with regard to colonial history.

Indeed, I could have mentioned several shows that have been presented during the last months in the city such as the current exhibitions by Bouchra Khalili or Daphnée Le Sergent at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, the Belgian artist Vincent Meessen or the South African artist David Goldblatt at the Centre Pompidou, Mohammed Bourouissa at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Black Dolls at la Maison Rouge, Julien Creuzet at Béton Salon and the project Practising colonial images – Propaganda films and private archives at the pluri-disciplinary art space Khiasma. All these projects are differently connected with colonial history. It would thus be worth to look at each of them systematically and precisely in order to observe the various ways in which art institutions in Paris today are confronted by (and confront themselves) the colonial pasts and its current resonances.

moreEmpirical notes on the exhibition “L’Un et l’Autre” (One and the Other) Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2018

[Announcement] Achille Mbembe on “The Capacity for Truth: Of ‘Restitution’ in African Systems of Thought”

2. November 2018

A.W. Amo Lecture
14th November 2018, 18h15, Melanchthonianum XX, MLU, Universitätsplatz 8/9, Halle

Achille Mbembe
WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg


The Capacity for Truth: Of ‘Restitution’ in African Systems of Thought

The lecture will explore some of the meanings attached to the concept and practice of restitution in precolonial African systems of thought. It will dwell in particular on those traditions that considered the most damaging wrongs as those causing harm to one’s ‘vital force’. We will elicit the juridical underpinnings of the right to restitution and revisit the relation between ‘persons’ and ‘objects’ it presupposed.

Achille Mbembe is currently Research Professor at WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He obtained his Ph.D. in history at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France, in 1989. He subsequently obtained a D.E.A. in political science at the Instituts d’études politiques also in Paris. He has held appointments at Columbia University in New York, Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Duke University and at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. Today, Achille Mbembe figures as the most renown philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual of the African continent and won several outstanding prizes, also in Germany. His most important works are: Les jeunes et l’ordre politique en Afrique noire (1985) ; La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1920-1960); Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (1996); De la postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (2000); Sortir de la grande nuit : Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (2003); Critique de la raison nègre (2013); Politique de l’inimitié (2016). Most of his books have been translated into English and German.

Download Announcement here.

[translation underway]

30. October 2018

The contribution “Das Kulturerbe Benins auf dem Prüfstand der Zeit” by Claudia Jürgens & Barpougouni Mardjoua is currently being translated. Please check back in a few days.

Call for reviews of the “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts” issued by the German Museums Association in May 2018

23. October 2018

by Larissa Förster

The colonial legacies of German museums have been discussed intensely over the past few years – also in this blog.

In September 2016 the German Museums Association established a working group that is looking into the issue of “collections from colonial contexts” and developing guidelines for the care of such collections.

In May 2018 the working group published a first draft of the guidelines.

See for the German version:

See for the English version:

In a multi-step process the draft will be discussed with experts and stakeholders and revised accordingly. As a first step, an internal workshop will be held with experts from the countries where collections originated (Hamburg, October 29-30, 2018). A second and revised version of the guidelines will be published in spring 2019.

Since its release, the draft guidelines can also be reviewed online – by whoever takes an interest and would like to make a comment. To submit your comment or review (in German or English) please e-mail to: or use the comment section of this blog!

All comments received until December 1, 2018, will be read, forwarded to the members of the working group and discussed.

The working group on behalf of the Board of the German Museums Association is chaired by Wiebke Ahrndt. Its members are Hans-Jörg Czech, Jonathan Fine, Larissa Förster, Michael Geißdorf, Matthias Glaubrecht, Katarina Horst, Melanie Kölling, Silke Reuther, Anja Schaluschke, Carola Thielecke, Hilke Thode-Arora, Anne Wesche, Jürgen Zimmerer. Veit Didczuneit and Christoph Grunenberg contributed to the “Guidelines” as external authors.

As a member of the working group I look forward to a lively discussion – this is what is needed in order to explore ways of dealing meaningfully with colonial legacies in German museums!


Larissa Förster is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and member of the editorial board of “Wie weiter mit Humboldts Erbe?”.