A wooden drum confiscated by the French army in 1916 and housed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris will be returned to the Museum of Civilizations in Côte d’Ivoire. The instrument’s return marks the first time it will be in its country of origin in nearly a century.
The Ivorian drum Djidji Ayokwe, nicknamed the “talking drum,” is a traditional musical instrument that was used by the Ébrié community to warn against danger, to mobilize for war, and to summon villages to ceremonies or festivals. It measures almost 10 feet long and weighs 940 pounds.
“The drum made it possible to transmit messages over long distances – up to 30 kilometres in all directions – to villages neighbouring the village of Adjamé where it was located and which were therefore interpreted by those who heard them through sound, since the Ebrié language is a tonal language”, said Hélène Joubert, head of the heritage unit of the Africa collections at the Quai Branly Museum.
The return is part of a 2017 restitution policy initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron. The drum was the first on a list of 148 works that the Côte d’Ivoire officially requested at the end of 2018 to be returned by France.
Before it’s returned, the museum is working to restore the piece, which had been damaged in the nearly 15 years it had spent outdoors in the French governor Marc Simon’s house in Côte d’Ivoire between 1916 and 1930. There, various weather conditions and insects altered the drum.
“We consolidated the material, the wood itself, by impregnating it with a resin carried by a solvent. So the resin makes it possible to regain a slightly solid structure and to avoid small breakages on the edges, on the edges of the galleries, on the edges of the gaps, and so that vibrations and handling do not damage the drum any more”, said Nathalie Richard, head of the conservation-restoration department at the Quai Branly Museum.
However, only after the French Parliament has approved a statute permitting its official return can the Djidji Ayokwe’s arrival to the Museum of Civilization in Abidjan be officially confirmed.
Since Macron became president in 2017, he has advocated for the restitution of artworks from Africa that were seized during French colonization of parts of the continent. Progress has been slow, however, and since then, France has since returned just a handful of artifacts, including 26 works from the royal treasures of Abomey to Benin, which were looted by French colonial troops in 1892.
In addition to the Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, five other countries—Senegal, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, Madagascar—have submitted requests to France for the return of their respective national artifacts. Three new proposed laws in France may help with the objects’ return if they are passed by the French senate in June.