Benin President Patrice Talon will inaugurate, Saturday, an exhibition of historical artworks returned by France last year, nearly 130 years after they were stolen by colonial forces. The pieces will be displayed alongside the works of 34 contemporary artists, as part of a €1 billion initiative to ramp up the country’s cultural infrastructure.
The 26 pieces, some of which are considered sacred in Benin, will be on display from Sunday in a 2,000 square meter (21,500 square foot) space at the Presidential Palace in Cotonou in a display titled “The Art of Benin Yesterday and Today.”
The return of artifacts by France comes with increasing calls in Africa for Western countries to hand over colonial spoils from their own museums and collections.
Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have all received requests from African countries to return the lost treasures, and Germany and Belgium have taken similar steps to France, starting recovery actions with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Returning in November after two years of negotiations between Paris and Cotonou, the 26 pieces were stolen by French colonial forces in 1892 from Abomey, the capital of the former Kingdom of Dahomey located in present-day southern Benin.
“With this exhibition, we return to the Benin people, part of their soul, part of their history and dignity,” Benin’s Minister of Culture Jean-Michel Abimbola told AFP.
Things “taken from a kingdom, but return to a republic.”
Before its unification, Benin was made up of several kingdoms, including Dahomey, which was famous for its vibrant artistic culture.
In the gallery’s first hall, massive black walls present a homage to the Show of the Thrones of Dahomey, including the wood and metal carvings of King Gezo’s throne.
“Since its installation, I have not stopped thinking about it,” said Theo Atrocpo, one of the exhibition guides.
“I’ve already seen it at the Quai Branly in France, but to see it here, at home with us, it brings back a part of our soul and is connected to our history.”
‘Very emotional’ President Talon will officially open the event on Saturday evening before it opens to the public.
Besides the royal treasures, the works of 34 contemporary artists have been selected for the exhibition.
“It’s very touching to be in front of this throne. But I never imagined it would be this big,” said Leila Adjovi, a French Beninese artist whose work is also on display.
“This recovery launched a plan to intensify cultural investment in Benin,” said Jorga Calvin Smith of France 24 in a report from Cotonou.
“Over the next four years, an estimated €1 billion will be invested in the country’s cultural infrastructure, with the construction of four world-class museums focusing on everything from the history of slavery, to voodoo and contemporary art. The plan is to make the art, culture and tourism that we hope will come with this. Investment is a major part of the country’s economy.”
“The return of these first twenty-six works is also part of a larger push to try to recover parts of Benin’s artistic heritage that are currently preserved elsewhere.”
The exhibition aligns with the government’s plans to put Benin on the map as a global cultural centre.
Eye on Africa © JowharFrench President Emmanuel Macron has worked to restore African heritage, as part of his broader effort to turn the page on France’s troubled relationship with Africa. During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, the leader pledged to “return African heritage to Africa”, acknowledging the “undeniable crimes of European colonialism”.
Benin’s Minister of Culture said discussions are underway to return other pieces, including the god Go statue in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
French lawmakers have approved a 2020 bill allowing Paris to return artifacts to both Benin and Senegal, another former French colony, more than a century after they were looted by colonial forces.
Some were taken over by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed on to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe and the United States.
But others were gifts to missionaries, obtained by African art collectors at the beginning of the 20th century, or discovered by scientific expeditions.
A report commissioned by Macron counted about 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them on Quai Branly alone.
France’s return of these 26 artworks to Benin has raised hopes that other European countries and cultural institutions will follow suit. The report noted that there were hundreds of thousands of other objects in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Austria and Germany. On the other hand, national museums in Africa rarely have collections over 3,000 works. Often these things also have a lower artistic value.
(France 24 with AFP)