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Why African Cultural Restitution Matters

Until very recently, European cultural institutions preferred to act as if colonialism had not rested on the violent disavowal of African art, music, and architecture. But that is finally starting to change, owing not least to the efforts of young Africans.

NEW YORK – French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently presented an antique saber to Senegalese President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar. But it was not a gift. The saber was coming home, more than a century after it had been stolen.

The repatriation of an item with deep historical, spiritual, and cultural significance might seem like a mere gesture of colonial redress. But this ceremony was different, and it was about much more than a single physical object. In fact, it was a watershed moment in the West’s recognition of the cultural damage inflicted by colonialism.

The saber in question belonged to El Hajj Omar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire, which once extended from present-day Senegal into Mali and Guinea. Tall was a respected religious leader and anti-colonial resistance fighter. His weapon, along with tens of thousands of other pieces of looted African heritage, had been in French hands since the 1890s. Exhibited in French museums, the saber ceased to symbolize the military prowess of a once-powerful dynasty, and instead told the tale of an African empire’s decimation, thereby legitimizing the racism and prejudice that underpinned the colonial period.

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