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A bronze head from the Kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria, from the collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Photo: MKG Hamburg.

Open Society Pledges $15 Million in Support of Restituting African Artifacts

The Open Society Foundations, the grantmaking organization founded by financier-philanthropist George Soros, has pledged $15 million over four years toward grassroots, institutional, and governmental efforts to return looted cultural artifacts to African nations.

“The legacy of colonial violence has deep implications for the ways that racism and imbalances of power are perpetuated today,” said Open Society president Patrick Gaspard. “This isn’t just about returning pieces of art, but about restoring the very essence of these cultures. We are proud to support this movement towards reconciling historical wrongs.”

The initiative, which may include support for litigation, coalition building, and expert meetings of African scholars, cultural figures, policy officials, and spiritual leaders, will be led by Rashida Bumbray, director of culture and art at Open Society; Anthony Richter, director of special initiatives; and Ayisha Osori, director of the organization’s initiative for West Africa.

The pledge acts in support of the recommendations by the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, which called for the permanent restitution of African art and artifacts that had been acquired through “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery, and forced consent.” The report, commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron and published last year, called for France to create an inventory of all works that entered French collections during colonial rule in Africa and brings about two thirds of the ninety thousand pieces of African art acquired before 1960 currently in French museums under scrutiny. 

Earlier this year, German culture ministers also agreed to establish protocols for repatriation, and federal culture minister Monika Grütters announced in February that $2.17 million of state funds had been secured for provenance research on works that had entered German museum collections during the colonial era.

“With so much of Africa’s precolonial cultural legacy housed in European museums, these artifacts are out of reach for millions on the African continent, who have a right to their own knowledge and cultural production,” said Bumbray. “Restitution is not only about rightsizing the past, but about access to one’s own heritage and a necessity to maintain this connection for future generations.”

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