As 26 looted treasures go on display in Benin, the West African cultural community wonders what will happen next
“Since Senghor, no African president has invested so much in art,” gallerist Adenile Borna Soglo told Artnet News, referring to the poet, politician and cultural theorist who served as Senegal’s first president. An air of national pride – perhaps with a hint of hyperbole – seeped into Cotonou.
Twenty-six royal objects are currently on display in the former presidential palace in Benin’s administrative capital, returned from the Quai Branly museum in France last November. In 1892, after two years of war with the Danhomeans, French troops looted the palaces and the city of Abomey, seizing the royal objects, which were given to the Ethnographic Museum of Trocadero. From 2000, the objects are kept at the Quai Branly.
Objects include an anthropo-zoomorphic statue of King Behanzin, by artist Sossa Dede, as well as several ceremonial thrones and a soldier’s tunic. The public showcase is part of an ongoing exhibition, “Benin Art Then and Now, From Restitution to Revelation: Royal Treasures and Contemporary Art from Benin,” which runs until ‘in May.
Free to the public and apparently sold out until closing time, the exhibition was widely broadcast in regional languages across the country. And the response from guests has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s important to be able to discover the Beninese cultural identity,” said a visitor to the exhibition, Hervé. The sentiment was echoed by another, Steeve Tsagli, who turned himself in after hearing about the show on social media: “I’m incredibly proud to be here,” he said. Praise, a student from Lagos, added that it was “incredible” that the Beninese government went to France to recover these pieces: “It’s their story”.
During a private preview, an address by Beninese President Patrice Talon followed a reception organized for the outgoing kings of the various royal families of Benin, including Dahomey. At the invitation of the Presidency, other guests included Beninese artists, art historians, curators and practitioners, as well as a delegation led by the French Minister of Culture, accompanied by a large cohort of French art scene.
“Beninese people are obsessed with history and heritage,” said Olivia Anani, a Beninese art dealer based in Paris. “I just came for the weekend to feel the energy of this historic moment.
While viewers were excited to see these items in their ancestral home, the conversation surrounding restitution extends beyond geography. “We need to talk about the recontextualization of these objects,” insisted Bayo Hassan-Bello, an Ivorian artist and curator, to Artnet News. “They had functional uses in society and possessed greater ontological and ancestral power, while in new contexts they serve new goals.
Man Ray’s Black and White photograph of French model Kiki de Montparnasse is a well-known example of such decontextualization. Art historians have interrogated themes such as commodification and fetishization, amid Euro-African power dynamics and a new wave of “negrophilia” in France. in the 1920s. Thus, despite the euphoria that returned objects bring to Benin, many are keen to question the contexts in which these pieces are presented.
“These objects no longer serve the purpose of 100 and 200 years ago. [them] in glass cubes continues to decontextualize them”, Hassan-Bello said, adding that ttheir goals were beyond material. “Ethereal things don’t work in spaces of bureaucracy. Restitution is not just about objects. It’s about so much more.
Indeed, the pan-Africanist researcher Achille Mbembe has often alluded to the “more”, especially in a interview 2019, where he argued that the risk of returning African heritage objects without properly accounting for them robs them of the right to remind us of the truth. “I tried to link the call for restitution to the larger issues of debt, reparation and universal justice,” he said. “The truth is that Europe has taken things from us that it can never give back.”
Another aim of the current exhibition is to highlight Benin’s continued artistic prowess by highlighting its contemporary art sector. A majestic performance by Prince Toffa, rooted in his practice based on recycling, presented during the private preview, immobilized the guests. In addition, 34 artists from Benin and its diaspora are presented in a dedicated section of the exhibition. Confirmed artists including Ludovic Fadairo, Georges Adeagbo, Romauld Hazoume and Julien SInzogan, are presented alongside young artists Moufouli Bello, King Houdekpinkou and Thierry Oussou.
“Culture is undoubtedly an important pillar of economic development,” said Benin’s Minister of Culture. Jean Michel Abimbola told Artnet News, adding that the country plans to build four new museums by 2025. “The government is convinced that we can create an economy based on culture and tourism.
Beninese national pride emerges as a clear winner from this moment, as does French President Emmanuel Macron against the backdrop of the soft power of his “FrancAfrique” connections as he campaigns for re-election later this year. “In the context of neo-colonialism, culture does not exist independently politics, and that’s good political will,” Hassan-Bello said, referring to the situation in Mali, where the caretaker government expelled the French ambassador to Mali following criticism from the French affairs minister. which considers it an illegitimate military junta. The artist Aboubakar Fofanawhose work has been included in the exhibition, has been particularly critical of what he sees as French efforts to maintain control over West African resources.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, plans are underway to build the Edo West African Art Museum (EMOWAA), designed by Adjaye Associates, which will house ruins, artifacts and unstudied objects from the kingdom of Edo. While museums in the United States and Germany have promised to return the bronzes looted from the royal palace in Benin City, the British Museum, which supports partner in the project, only ever alluded to the possibility of “lending” back, rather than transferring ownership of these massively looted objects.
“It’s as if they thought they had superior thinking, facilities and knowledge, but it was the same form of thinking that informed the removal of these objects in the first place,” said Peju Layiwola, professor and artist who worked closely with the Oba leaving Benin on the restitution of the looted bronzes, which are now housed around the world. He added the popular belief that Western museums “hide behind laws and clauses” to avoid responsibility for returning these works.
“An institution like the British Museum adopts a ‘keep and explain’ policy, and their use of language in captioning looted artefacts is a weapon in the custody of these items,” said artist Victor Ehikhamenor, whose work marking 125 years since the looting of the bronzes is currently on display at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He added that museums seem to cling unnecessarily to this particular set of stolen objects. In the context of Benin City, for example, the practice of bronze casting had existed for centuries and did not stop with the arrest of Oba Ovonramwen in 1897. ‘weren’t they stolen or produced a bit later?” he asked.
As the Dakar Biennale returns for the first time in four years, a cultural renaissance is well and truly bubbling across West Africa. But while countries like Nigeria and Ghana continue to rely on private industries to support their artistic sectors, in Benin, the State took control. And by taking the lead in restitution, the Republic of Benin propels itself to the heart of this narrative.
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