Benin’s exhibition of artworks returned from France showcase its royal past

France returned 26 African artifacts to Benin last November but still holds thousands in its museums.
Art provided a connection to history in Benin
Art provided a connection to history in Benin
Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)
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Nearly 130 years after French soldiers entered the palace in Abomey in southern Benin and seized royal property as a sign of colonial conquest, month-long exhibitions in the west African country have honored the return of 26 artifacts, providing an opportunity to showcase a vibrant contemporary art tradition.

The artifacts, which include thrones of past kings of the Dahomey kingdom (in present-day Benin), palace gates and royal statues, were returned last November following years of requests by Benin’s government. A French law allowing for their return was signed in December 2020, three years after Emmanuel Macron first declared his intention for France to return looted African art.

Once reserved in the Quai Branly museum in Paris, the 26 artifacts have been on display at the Palace of the Marina in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and major port of entry for visitors. The free exhibition first held between February and May this year, resumed from mid July to end on Aug. 28. From Benin and beyond, over 200,000 people have visited, the New York Times said citing government data.

Statues of past kings of Dahomey, in present day Benin, on display behind a glass at the Palace of the Marina in Cotonou
Statues of Kings Glélé and Béhanzin, icons of the Dahomey Kingdom
Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

Shegun Adjadi Bakari, a former high-ranking advisor to Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé, attended the exhibition. “It’s a real pleasure to bring our children to discover our history and share this piece of Benin and understand that ultimately Benin does not stop,” he said. “It lives beyond time.”

Accompanying the historic artifacts were the works of 34 Benin contemporary artists, including creations by the famed voodoo art painter Cyprien Tokoudagba and an ode to women governing society by Ishola Akpo, a photographer born in Cote d’Ivoire to Beninese parents. Five of the contemporary artists on display were women.

Benin is the home of the famous all-female Dahomey military regimen that fought against French colonial rule and whose story will be depicted in the soon to be released film The Woman King starring Viola Davis.

Traditional ruler of Abomey-Calavi, Kpoton Avounbe, Allodji III, (C) and his family arrive to attend the inauguration of a symbolic exhibition to showcase artefacts looted by the French colonial soldiers returned to the country at the presidency in Cotonou on February 19, 2022
Kpoton Avounbe, Allodji III, traditional ruler of Abomey-Calavi, at the exhibition
Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

Thousands of African artworks remain in France and rest of Europe

Seeing the sense of pride generated in Benin, there could be a greater push to return the rest of African art reserved in museums and galleries across Europe.

The 2018 report commissioned by Macron on art restitution found that 90% of African art is outside the continent. The Quai Branly museum in Paris alone holds over 70,000 art works, with similar numbers in Germany, Austria and England, and 180,000 in Belgium. Some artifacts were sold in Paris by the auction house Christie’s in July 2020 for around $238,000.

“It’s not possible anymore to say, ‘At the time, we looted some war spoils; too bad, now it’s ours,’” Benin’s culture minister Jean-Michel Abimbola told the Times.

French president Emmanuel Macron at the exhibition of 26 returned artifacts in Benin
Macron takes in a sight of the returned artifacts on a visit to Benin
Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

Under Macron’s government, France has returned 28 artifacts to Africa—one each to Senegal, and Madagascar in addition to these in Benin. Will the French president, who visited Benin in July to see the exhibition, accelerate the pace of restitution?

In the past, calls for restitution from France have come up against a legal barrier called the “inalienability of public French art collections.” This simply means there are laws stating any public French art collections belongs to the state and cannot be given back (even when said assets were looted.)

The simple argument for advocating the return is that the artifacts belong to Africa. But against criticism that the continent is unprepared to manage its treasures, some governments have started making investments. Togo opened a state-funded 26,000 square feet contemporary art center in 2019 by converting a former colonial palace at the cost of $3.6 million. Benin’s exhibitions this year are said to be part of a €1 billion agenda to invest in cultural infrastructure.