In 1952, a Swiss doctor brought home from colonial Congo seven skeletons belonging to the nomadic Mbuti people and gave them to the University of Geneva for research.

Seventy years later, Swiss, German and Congolese artists from the theatre and music ensemble GROUP50: 50 travelled to a forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to meet the descendants of the seven Mbuti whose skeletons were stolen. Together, they developed a ritual to allow the seven spirits to find rest. Consequently, GROUP50: 50 transformed these experiences into a multimedia musical theatre piece about “(neo)colonial crimes, death and mourning”.

Named The Ghosts Are Returning, the show is part of a growing international mobilisation of African and European activists, artists, and policymakers demanding the restitution of myriad African artefacts and works of art looted in the colonial era and now jealously guarded in Europe’s museums and universities.

Congolese artist Mwazulu Diyabanza, for instance, recently “took home” a 19th-century funerary stone belonging to the Bari people of Chad by removing it from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which hosts more than 70,000 African objects. He made similar attempts in Marseilles and Amsterdam, each time raising a heated public debate about who the thief really is.

Diyabanza himself appears certain who the real “thief” is. “They were the ones who stole,” he argues. “They stole a part of my history, a part of my identity. And I did what I think everyone here would do if they saw a thief: get back what they took without asking permission.”

His point about identity is key to understanding the significance of the restitution movement. Objects of art, and ritual, help humans navigate their past and their present, providing a fundamental anchor for the self and for the communities of selves that we call society and state.

The cultural dispossession suffered by the African continent during European colonialism was tantamount to an erasure of its past – an erasure that was retrospectively used to try and vindicate the false claim that Africa was an empty continent lying outside of history before colonisation.

Works such as the 16th-century Benin Bronzes, which are not only incredibly complex but also depict pre-colonial interactions between Europe and Africa, for example, are testaments to the long history and cultural richness of the continent. Many of these Bronzes, however, are now not where they belong in West Africa, but in European museums.

Human remains and ritual masks also tie Africa’s past to its present and inform its current inhabitants of the depth of their heritage. They should today be scattered across villages, connecting communities with their past through the exercise of the political and spiritual power they yield. Most of these objects too, however, like the seven Mbuti skeletons, are far from home. Taking such treasures away is more than aesthetic spoilation: it is the attempted erasure of a people’s sense of identity.

Pressed by shifting international perceptions and increased artistic activism, European governments and museums are beginning to respond. In July, Germany sealed an agreement with Nigeria to return more than 1,000 looted items, engaging a large array of institutions ranging from State Ethnographic Museums to the Berggruen Museum, otherwise known for its extraordinary Picasso collection. In August, the United Kingdom followed suit. France also took action, commissioning a ground-breaking report on restitution in 2019 and returning the Benin treasures in its possession to Cotonou, the country’s largest city, this year.

While the restitution of the most famous works is often decided at the highest diplomatic level, cities are starting to play an equally important role in both physical restitution by municipally-owned museums and, crucially, the people-to-people contact that accompanies the ceremonies for the “coming home” of the works.

On December 13, the French city of Montpellier will host, together with Palermo-based Fondazione Studio Rizoma, the first gathering of municipalities on the theme of restitution. City-level diplomacy has increasingly been taking centre stage internationally – from issues of climate change to migration. Now mayors and municipal policy are also taking the lead in restitution efforts.

Europe has much to gain from this process of restitution. The Ghosts Are Returning, GROUP50: 50’s play, certainly refers to the return of the skeletons to their rightful place. But, equally, it refers to the return (or much-delayed recognition) of Europe’s own ghosts – first and foremost the exploitation and violence that characterised its colonial past and upon which much of its present wealth is built.

The restitution movement helps both Africans and Europeans develop a better and deeper awareness of their past. “For a better future to blossom, we must subject our museums to psychoanalysis,” as GROUP50: 50 violist Ruth Kemna puts it in the play.

Contemporary Europe, as explained by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is defined by “pardon” and “reconciliation”. Following two world wars and unspeakable cruelties committed against one another, European countries have eventually stared together into the abyss of their guilt and moved beyond mutual resentment. As a result, they managed to transform a history of violence and hostility into a vast political union. They now could and should expand these rebuilding and reconciliation efforts towards Africa.

Returning Africa’s stolen cultural heritage swiftly is the bare minimum Europe can do to show it is taking reconciliation seriously. However, this is hardly enough. How does one address the human, environmental and economic pillage suffered by African nations over centuries?

“The Ghosts Are Returning” also touches upon this question. The equatorial forest that has been the habitat of the Mbuti people for generations is now under threat from illegal logging by multinational – including European – companies. Shouldn’t true restitution include a response to this ongoing pillage too?

Europe could decide to hold onto its declining privilege and ignore all calls for restitution and reconciliation. Or it could seize the opportunity to truly engage African states and their civil society in a conversation among equals that could provide both Europeans and Africans with answers to planetary challenges.

As Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe reminds us, the French term for knowledge is “connaissance”, a word that literally means “being born together”. That is a very apt definition of the knowledge that art can transmit. Ultimately, this is what theatre and politics have in common: They force us to come to terms with our ghosts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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