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Is the 20th Century Slave Trade Linked to Contested Origins of African Art?

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A man looks at a fresco at the Nez Rouge on Thursday at the Hauts La Loire Museum in Bordeaux, France. (Alexandre Meneghini/AP Photo)

In the first trial over the contested status of African art, four museums from three countries were heard in Bordeaux on Monday, accused of misappropriating art left by the colonial French army.

At issue is the 20th century origins of major works of art, like the the highly disputed antiquities “Tatu,” an Africa nativity painting dating back to the 17th century.

In the 1930s, the painting was seized from a private collection in France and taken to Britain where it ended up in the British Museum.

However, the claim that “Tatu” was made by a man in the southern African country of Zambia is under fire, and has sparked the trial of four museums in France, Italy and Switzerland.

The aim of the trial is to establish who the true artists were, while critics say the prosecution—which is the first over the issue—is entirely focused on a colonial art trade which created political controversy throughout Europe.

The case centers on what to do with a collection of 13 paintings created between 1760 and 1817 by African artists during colonial rule in Africa. The paintings have been in the Nez Rouge Foundation in Bordeaux, and have since been transferred to the offices of the African National Congress in Johannesburg.

During the trial, the artifacts on display were brought out as victims of colonialism.

“I am a father who fought colonialism,” said former French President François Mitterrand, when asked to comment on the case.

There are calls for the paintings to be returned to their countries of origin, but efforts to do so have been resisted. The art was originally purchased by the contemporary French collector Jacques Faure. The Nez Rouge Foundation had argued that most of the paintings were African at first, but that they later bought works from galleries in Paris that were created outside the continent.

Evidence in the trial shows that several experts backed up the foundation’s claim. This defense was challenged by many—including some who became famous and financially successful—in court. The artist Jan Van Eyck, who created the pictures known as the Dutch Golden Age, and Vincent Van Gogh, were among those invited to participate in a debate at the trial. Van Gogh believed the artists were Dutch when they were painted, but did not dispute that they were made by African hands. Van Eyck also argued that he had started out as a servant.

Since the trial opened, 60,000 emails, both from France and abroad, have been sent to the court. The artists’ families also sent letters, arguing that restitution would ruin them.

“The artists of colonial Africa had to face the brunt of a colonial world,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter. “The only way to break the chains of historical memory and crimes of the past should be through reconciliation, not moralistic judgements.”

“For us, colonialism was a type of capitalism, as a way to build a French commercial empire that benefited the French colonialists,” said Marouane Thiam, the Socialist MP who is helping to represent the Nez Rouge Foundation and the BAE-Defence Group, one of the country’s main construction companies.

Many also argue that ownership of the artworks is related to the slavery question.

“You could say the whole debate is based on the problem of modern slavery—with the auction of objects that were stolen from Africa,” said the expert Guillaume Tomava, in the court.

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