A woman photographs anthropo-zoomorphic statues depicting King Glele (L)and King Behanzin (R) during an exhibition of returned looted Benin artefacts and exhibition of contemoprary artworks at the presidency in Benin’s capital Cotonou, on February 18, 2022. Photo by Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images.
After France officially handed back 26 looted Benin treasures, the west African cultural community is pondering what comes after restitution. Scholars, artists, and politicians believe that restitution is about more than just the objects.
“Since Senghor, we haven’t had an African president invest so much in art as now,” gallerist Adenile Borna Soglo told Artnet News, referencing the poet, politician and cultural theorist who served as the first president of Senegal. An air of national pride—with perhaps a sprinkling of hyperbole—has been percolating through 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 Abomey palaces and city, seizing the royal objects, which were donated to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography. From 2000, the objects were kept at the Quai Branly.
The objects include an anthropo-zoomorphic statue depicting King Behanzin, by artist Sossa Dede, as well as several ceremonial thrones, and a soldier’s tunic. The public showcase forms part of an ongoing exhibition, “The Art of Benin of Yesterday and Today, from Restitution to Revelation: Royal Treasures and the Contemporary Art of Benin,” which runs until May.
Free to the public, and reportedly fully booked until closing, the exhibition has been widely publicized in regional languages across the breadth of the country. And the response from guests has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s important to be able to discover the Beninse cultural identity,” one visitor to the exhibition, Hervé, said. The sentiment was echoed by another, Steeve Tsagli, who visited 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 “amazing” that the Benin government went to France to get these pieces back: “It’s their history.”
At a private preview, an address by Benin’s president Patrice Talon followed a reception held for the incumbent kings from Benin’s various royal families, including Dahomey. At the invitation of the presidency, other invited guests included Beninese artists, art historians, curators, and practitioners, as well as a delegation led by the French culture minister, accompanied by an extensive cohort from the French art scene.
“The Beninese are obsessed with history and legacy,” Olivia Anani, a Paris-based Beninese art dealer, said. “I came in just for the weekend to feel the energy of this historic moment.”
While onlookers were enthused about viewing these objects in their ancestral home, the conversation surrounding restitution extends past geography. “We have to talk about the re-contextualisation of these objects,” Ivory Coast-based artist and curator, Bayo Hassan-Bello insisted to Artnet News. “They had functional uses in society and possessed greater ontological and ancestral power, whereas in new contexts they serve new purposes.”
Man Ray’s Noir et Blanche 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 fresh wave of “negrophilia” in France in the 1920s. Therefore, despite the euphoria that the returned objects bring to Benin, many are keen to question the contexts in which these pieces are presented. […]