africologne (11): DIALOGFORUM (part 2) Repairing, re-humanising (part 2 of 2)

The panelists (from left to right): Auf dem Podium (vlnr.) Dr. Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dr. Amzat Boukari-Yabara, Mireille Fanon Mendès-France, Dr. Koulsy Lamko and Zora Snake (Photo: Kerstin Ortmeier)

by Marie Yan



Jumping off the words of Fanon Mendès-France before circling back to the colonial debt, which was a central topic raised by the panel, I linger on the idea of the colonial matrix. A matrix, like a machine, but with organic, both self-regenerating and self-destructive autonomous parts, poses the question of what is inside of it, outside of it, where it starts, where it ends. And with the question of beginnings and endings comes the one of the historiography of restitution. What accents does the timeline of restitution have, in relation to itself and in relation to repair?

The premise, is given by Dr Koulsy Lamko: «Repair cannot be done without restitution. One cannot restore without knowing what was, what has been done.» A work of researching and visibilising he himself initiated in several places and lastly in Mexico. There, he set up the Casa Refugio Hankili África. A historical centre that offers both a living space for African refugees and artists and welcomes Afro-Mexican cultures. Creating for instance, more understanding of the heritage of the Costa Chica de Guerrero, a region with large communities of native, often Indigenous, Black Mexicans, descendants of maroon slaves, too often neglected in the country’s narrative and political decisions. Restitution as demanding a knowing of the past which in turns allows for repair.

From looking at how knowing the past prepares the future of reparation, we can look in more details at the historiography of restitution; and there, a timeline of restitution with competing beginnings appears.

A first beginning to this timeline, the most self-congratulatory and full of neocolonial erasure, would start with Western politics opening to the idea of restituting parts of their looted collections. An example of that timeline being the 2017 Ouagadougou speech of French president Emmanuel Macron.

A second one, from the perspectives of the newly independent countries, would start in the sixties, as exposed by Bénédicte Savoy in Africa’s Struggle for its art:»Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened forty years ago. Nearly every relevant film had already been made and nearly every demand had already been formulated.»[1]

A third one, with the panel now reaffirms, inextricably ties together restitution and repair. It would start elsewhere, not in State-normatised relations, but in the communities that were deprived. As Zora Snake provocatively puts it: «Restitution. It’s a work we do in the village since a long time. As an artist resident of the village, it’s good to see it’s raising the politicians’ interest.» A declaration that re-situates on the space-time continuum, who comes to the discussions of restitution with the most knowledge, the most practice. «It’s a regular, daily work, a resident’s daily duty. One example: when you get up, you don’t need to know your neighbour to greet him. «Did you sleep well? How are you? Where are you going?» Restitution, beyond giving the artwork back, is a reparation of the bodies, of the human society. (…) How are bodies first restored, so they can give back the place the artworks deserve. The one before the flight, the desecrating. When [the artwork] comes returns, the bodies must be have been repaired.» [2]


The questions of the colonial debt was one of the centres that the panel «Recognise, restitution and repair» keeps coming back to, tying it to Reparations. Dr Koulsy Lamko in his opening presentation recalls Sankara’s famous Ababa speech of 1987, pressing African heads of State to unite in refusing to pay the debt owned to European countries, calling it a «(…) a cleverly organized reconquest» [3].

Dr. Amzat Boukari-Yabara, historian, activist and author from France and Benin, stresses that the debt mechanisms that tied Haiti down, were identical to that, reproduced during the decolonisation period of the 1960s. For memory, the republic had to pay the French former colonists at its independence; a payment that ran over several generations and was doubled by a loan, to banks of the very country that demanded the payment of the debt.[4]

In the continuity of that analysis, Dr. Boukari-Yabara argues for viewing Reparations not as an end in themselves, but as a call for system-change: «If you cancel the debt, in fifteen years it will have built itself up again. We must abolish the debt system.»[5], calling for «economic democracy» in lieu of «liberal democracy».

Reparations then «are a collective, decolonial and political project. It forces us to question the very foundation of that has been the fabric of human catastrophe since 1492, that is, capitalism fuelled by the hierarchy of races. That is what must be destroyed. This must be Reparations’ purpose. Changing the political and economic model in which we live. (…) Reparations are a pretext to break into a change of the domination paradigm.» A Reparation project and the repair that comes with it, becoming an «infinite project»[6] caught in the time it can take to undo the racial capitalist system it is struggling against.


One audience member, asks the panel about strategies for leveraging Reparations. Strategies and perspectives mentioned along the way are recollected here in their expansive ambitions, as a close to this report on the panel «Recognise, restitute and repair».

Dr Amzat Boukari-Yabara suggested constitutional changes based on African thought systems. Citing the example of the Ujaama policies adopted in Tanzania, supporting an economy based on traditional ecology.

Mireille Fanon Mendès-France called for a social movement for Reparations, possibly supported by States, but not led by them. In a later exchange, she also saw as powerful sites of transmission to be: popular education and social movements; and horizontal dialogues between young scholars presenting their research with deciding actors of African societies.

Dr Ndongo Samba called for a revolutionary panafricanism based on a new vision of decolonisation. As well as for a deconnection from the dominant economic system. «Africa must become its own centre. Otherwise it will be torn between several centres in a multipolar world.»[7]

Zora Snake: «Artistically, we are becoming the relays of the youth. We must create solidarity within the society. Transcending, transposing and creating poetry.» [8] As well as deconstructing colonial vocabularies by re-localising knowledge production, referencing local rather than Western art and canons.

Dr Koulsy Lamko talked about the need to «mobilise, create group dynamics, organise to draw, in a communalist impulse, the contours of a community of destiny. Identify Global South and North groups and institutions and establish alliances of condition.» Re-humanising through knowledge repair and praxis.


[1] in «Epilogue», Princeton University Press, 2022.

[2] «C’est un travail régulier, quotidien, un devoir quotidien de chaque résident.e. Un exemple : quand on se lève, on n’a pas besoin de connaître notre voisin on se salue. «Tu as bien dormi ? Tu vas bien ? Tu vas où ?» La restitution, au-delà de remettre l’œuvre est une réparation des corps, de la société humaine. […] Comment les corps se restaurent d’abord pour pouvoir redonner la place des œuvres, qu’elles méritent. Celle d’avant sa fuite, sa désacralisation. Quand [l’œuvre] revient il faut que les corps soient réparés.» From a later interview with the artist in Cologne on the 7th of June 2023. My own translations from this point onwards unless otherwise stated, when no original is referred to, the statement was made in English.

[3] Translation given by Dr Koulsy Lamko.

[4] A payment that amounted to 8.5 million of today’s dollar. For a sumup: «The Ransom: The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers», New York Times, 16th of November 2022, accessed online.

[5] «Si on annule la dette dans 15 ans elle se reconstitue. Il faut abolir le système dette.» my own translation.

[6] «Les Réparations sont un projet collectif, décolonial et politique. Il nous oblige à questionner le fondement-même de ce qui a fait la catastrophe humaine à partir de 1492 donc le capitalisme qui s’est nourri de la hiérarchisation des races. C’est ca qu’il faut détruire. Les Réparations doivent servir à ça. À changer le modèle politique et économique dans lequel nous vivons. (…) Les Réparations sont un prétexte pour entrer par effraction dans un changement de paradigme de la domination. (…) Un projet qui n’est jamais fini.» Mireille Fanon Mendès-France.

[7] «Il faut que l’Afrique devienne son centre. Sinon elle sera déchirée entre plusieurs centres dans un monde multipolaire.»

[8] «Artistiquement nous devenons des relais de la jeunesse. Il faut solidariser une société. On transcende, on transpose et on fabrique de la poésie.»

Marie Yan (c) Yan Ho

Marie Yan is a multilingual writer and dramaturge with a focus on postcolonial perspectives. She writes in French and English, speaking German, learning Cantonese. In worlds that range from near-documentary to speculative fiction, she has written stories about borders (I need to cross, commission of the Eskişehir’s city theatre, 2019), conspiracy theories (La Théorie, Festival Impatience, Paris, 2021), climate disaster and authoritarianism (A Tidal Home, Hong Kong, 2021). Her ongoing project Minotaurus or the child of the labyrinth, after Dürrenmatt, researches the incarceration of minors in France in association with theatre company Lou Pantail. She received the Mary Leishman Award for Theatre for her first play The Fog and the Crossing Borders scholarship for her upcoming essay Hong Kong: Struggling home. She works between France and Germany.

@_marie_yan (IG)

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