What Does the Return of Algeria’s Skulls Tell Us About France?

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On July 3rd, 2020, French president Emmanuel Macron made the decision to return twenty-four Algerian Skulls back to Algeria. The skulls were greeted by Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboun, who greeted the bodies with a proper military ceremony, an exhibit at the Palace of Culture, and a burial at the El Alia Cemetery on July 5th, 2020. This date signifies independence for Algerians back on July 5th, 1962, and the date when France declared Algeria as a department of France back in 1830. France’s authority in Algeria lasted for 170 years, and Algeria has now had its own sovereignty for 58 years.

The skulls represent the glorification and yearning of the colonial days, when France was at the peak of its power and economic glory. Their bodies were objects standing as a tribute to the complacency of white supremacy and systematic racism in the way that non-European bodies are usually subjected to study and display in Europe. As president, Emmanuel Macron stated in 2017 that the colonization of Algeria was a “crime against humanity.” This is the first time a French president has acknowledged the need for reparations.

Return of Algerian Skulls: Photography of soldiers carrying coffins. The remains were flown in to Algiers on a Hercules C-130 transport plane, accompanied by Algerian fighters. AFP. The National News.
Photography of soldiers carrying coffins. The remains were flown into Algiers on a Hercules C-130 transport plane, accompanied by Algerian fighters. AFP. The National News.

The skulls were those of resistance fighters who fought for Algeria, their bodies were brought back to the French empire as glorified trophies of war to celebrate France’s land grab. These men lost their lives defending their country and their people in 1849. One of the decapitated Algerians is Sheikh
Bouziane, a resistance leader who died in the Battle of Zaatcha, where 800 Algerians were massacred. Another was Mohamed Ben Allel Ben Mlberek, a lieutenant of the national resistance figure Emir. Bou Amar Ben Kedida and Si Mokhtar Ben Kouider El Titaoui were also key leaders in the resistance.

Dr.F.Quesnoy, Drawing portraying decapitated heads of Algerian resistance fighters, 1888,  L'Armée d'Afrique depuis la conquête d'Alger
Dr.F.Quesnoy, Drawing portraying decapitated heads of Algerian resistance fighters, 1888, L’Armée d’Afrique depuis la conquête d’Alger. Gallica, National French Library.

This historic move was made possible when Algerian historian Ali Farid Belkadi launched a campaign in 2011 which was followed by a petition in 2017 asking for the return of the remains. Previously the decapitated skulls were at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. What happened to the Algerians is not dissimilar to Native American skulls that fell victim to European settler violence and consequently, scientific study. The skulls acquired to the Smithsonian collection were put to rest after several decades of pressure from Native American tribes wishing to bury their ancestors.

Return of Algerian Skulls:  18,000 Skulls are conserved for scientific study at the Musee de l’Homme, Paris, France.
18,000 Skulls are conserved for scientific study at the Musee de l’Homme, Paris, France. France 3/Culturebox.

What does this decision mean for France’s stance on decolonizing their art institutions?

France has also promised to give back objects, but the reality is that France has not been giving back as many objects as it has acquired over the 170 colonial year periods. This is not the first instance, however, where, under President Emmanuel Macron, France has returned looted objects back to the countries they belong to. Last year, Benin was promised twenty-six objects would be returned by 2021. It is important to note that in total there were 40 Algerian skulls brought to Paris, this is a fraction. This is not a completely resolved issue either.

Return of Algerian Skulls: Horace Vernet, Prise de la Ville, 1838, Grande Palais, Paris, France.
Horace Vernet, Prise de la Ville, 13 Octobre 1837, 1838, Grande Palais, Paris, France. Histoire-Image.

In 2018, president Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report from two scholars, Benedicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal on proposals for pieces of African heritage. According to their report, 90 to 95 percent of African cultural heritage is held by major western museums, France has 90,000 pieces from sub-Saharan Africa alone. These numbers escalate when thinking about the entire African continent in French institutions. Savoy and Sarr “recommend that objects that were removed and sent to mainland France without the consent of their countries of origin be permanently returned — if the country of origin asks for them. This restitution should be part of a collaborative process of information gathering, research, scientific exchange and training,” according to the New York Times.

It’s hard to tell how much more France’s institutions are willing to return because the acquisition (no matter how justified or unjustified) of objects equates to the power of a nation. Collecting objects from all over the world and creating interpretations for cultures globally is something that every nation globally desires. It drives traffic for visitors and scholars to credit French institutions as leaders in the arts.

Usually, museums are not places to engage in politics or current social movements. According to art curator Yesomi Umolu,

“Museums have therefore set themselves in a double bind, presuming to be at service of civic society on one hand, while setting themselves apart from it on the other hand.”

Yesomi Umolu, On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice, ArtNet.

Yet Macron is taking the initiative to return objects, shifting the conversation to bring conversations of politics, history, and ethics on the table.

Return of Algerian Skulls: Horace Vernet, Les Colonnes D'Assaut se mettent en mouvement, 13 Octobre 1837, 1838, Grande Palais, Paris, France.
Horace Vernet, Les Colonnes D’Assaut se mettent en mouvement, 13 Octobre 1837, 1837, Grande Palais, Paris, France. Histoire-Image.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement brings to question the arts and their colonial roots. Decolonizing an arts institution is not purely about giving back objects, but for institutions to recognize their role in how the objects got there and educating the public on the atrocities behind the objects. It is a calling for the acknowledgment of the flaws of the colonialism that built the French Empire. This is a stance for French institutions to question diversity (staff members, board members, students, and artists) in their institutions and who has the authority to determine the types of narrative each object has. To eradicate the people’s stories behind the object other than its form, function, and symbolic use dismisses the existence of the humanity and culture of the colonized peoples.

Engagement and partnership within a diverse group of people by valuing their narratives will allow them to feel more appreciated and heard. Even if it means hearing challenging perspectives from activists, scholars, junior staff members, etc. the conversations will lead to more art institutions doing good for communities with inclusive stories which will only spur visitor attendance.

Return of Algerian Skulls: Horace Vernet, L'Ennemi Repoussé des Hauteres de Coudiat-Ati. 10 Octobre 1837, 1837, Grande Palais, Paris, France.
Horace Vernet, L’Ennemi Repoussé des Hauteres de Coudiat-Ati. 10 Octobre 1837, 1837, Grande Palais, Paris, France. Histoire-Image.

This is no easy question to solve for museums because this issue is as new as the battles for independence of many post-colonial nations.  It will take time before we see a significant change in the transfer of objects to their place of origin. Or normalize the conversations of colonial brutality.  At least, long lost Algerian bodies have been set free.

Sources referenced:


Author’s bio:

Eman Alami is an art, culture, and fashion writer. She earned her degree in Art History from University of California, Los Angeles. Alami dedicates her life to the arts as a development assistant at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Formally a volunteer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and Research fellow at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her website is http://www.emanalami.com


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What Does the Return of Algeria’s Skulls Tell Us About France? was first posted on December 10, 2020 at 5:00 pm.
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