Benin Art: Yesterday and Today, Palais de la Marina, Cotonou, February-May 2022

A major exhibition marking the return of 26 artworks stolen from Benin 130 years ago by French colonial forces opened to the public at the Palais de la Marina, Cotonou, on 19 February 2022.

The exhibits at the centre of the presentation constitute the first tranche of selected historic artworks and sacred objects identified for permanent restitution following the passing of France’s Art Law of 24 December 2020 – an act of cultural property legislation specific to the republics of Benin and Senegal that came about after many years of campaigning and lobbying by African art scholars, historians, politicians, community activists, artists and other stakeholders committed to the rightful return of contested, colonially-sourced holdings in French museums.

Journalist Georja Calvin-Smith’s preview of the exhibition “Benin Art: Yesterday and Today,” filmed at the presidential palace, Cotonou, 19 February 2022. Report for Eye on Africa, France 24. © Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP. Source: france24.com.

Some of the most notable items on display include: a collection of decorative 19th century bas-reliefs from the former Royal Palace of Abomey, which were stolen during the French colonial siege of 1892; a group of anthropo-zoomorphic sculptural figures known as the ‘Royal Statues of Dahomey’; and two wood and metal ceremonial thrones, originally created in the 19th century for King Ghézo and King Glèlè, previously displayed in the Africa section at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris.

19th century wood and metal throne, Trône du roi Ghézo [King Ghezo’s Throne], displayed in the ‘zone Afrique’ section of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, 2014. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

One hundred contemporary works by 34 visual artists from Benin and the Beninese diaspora were also presented alongside the returned treasures, enabling aesthetic links and continuities to be made between the past and the present while also opening up the exhibition as a space for dynamic, art-political, decolonial dialogues. Among the featured works were paintings by Cotonou-based figurative artist Moufouli Bello, fine art photography by Laeila Adjovi, textile-based wall-hangings and sculptural installations by Beninese-French artist Emo de Medeiros, and assemblages by the internationally renowned, Porto-Novo born, mixed-media artist Romuald Hazoumè.

Detail from the textile artwork “Surtenture #25 (…when the black phoenix shall rise),” 2017, by Emo de Medeiros. Hand stitched cotton on cotton. Dimensions: 200 × 200 cm. Displayed at 1:54, London, 2017. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

At the press preview, Benin’s Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola remarked on the exhibition’s significance, stating:

“With this exhibition, we are returning to the Beninese people part of their soul, part of their history and their dignity”

– Jean-Michel Abimbola. Culture Minister, Benin, 19.02.2022. Source: AFP
Installation by Beninese mixed-media artist Romuald Hazoumè, featuring reclaimed plastic objects, metalwork and other found materials. Exhibition, “Benin Art: Yesterday and Today,” Palais de la Marina, Cotonou, February-May 2022.

Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, also used the press launch to trail the government’s cultural infrastructure programme (worth c. €1 billion Euros), which will ultimately see four new state-of-the-art public venues built to showcase the history and diversity of Benin’s artistic heritage – paving the way for the return of more treasures that currently remain in France’s highest profile art museums and collections of ethnography. The comprehensive 2018 research report by Beninese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy – which discusses the history of French colonial exploitation in Africa, sets out the ethical case and legal criteria for restitution, and provides an inventory of key holdings in French public collections earmarked for return to their countries of origin – will help to inform Benin’s future object selection and prioritisation process.

Sarr and Savoy’s ground-breaking report sheds light on the scale and complexity of the type of object provenance research, inter-governmental heritage dialogues and transfer of ownership processes African nations have to undertake when submitting formal restitution requests to France – estimating that the total number of sub-Saharan African art treasures held in French museums exceeds 90,000 items, with c.70,000 of these under the custodianship of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. Looking beyond the Franco-African colonial context, the report also cites the following comparative statistics for major institutions with extensive African art collections located in other European countries:

From the British Museum (69,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa) to the Weltmuseum of Vienna (37,000), to the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium (180,000) to the Future Humboldt Forum (75,000), to the Vatican Museums and those of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (70,000): the history of the African collections is a European history that has indeed been a shared history. In 2007, Alain Godonou, a specialist of African museums, estimated that in comparison “with certain rare exceptions, the inventories of the national museums in Africa itself hardly ever exceeded 3,000 cultural heritage objects and most of them had little importance or significance.”

– Source: Sarr & Savoy (2018), p. 15.

Clearly, the initial return of just 26 stolen artworks from France to Benin does not – in and of itself –constitute a re-balancing of the scales of justice. However, a formal juridical framework and a set of transnational protocols for the restitution of contested holdings have now been established as workable templates for other nations’ use. So, I do feel reasonably optimistic about an accelerated pace of decolonial change in the near future, and look forward to reviewing many more home-coming exhibitions commemorating the successful return of treasured artworks to their communities of origin across the African continent.

Benin Art: Yesterday and Today continues at the presidential palace in Cotonou through to 22 May 2022.

Exhibition view of “Benin Art: Yesterday and Today” at the Palais de la Marina, Cotonou, February 2022.

References and further information

Fitzpatrick, Michael. 2022. Benin opens exhibition of stolen art treasures returned by France. RFI [Online] https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20220219-benin-opens-exhibition-of-stolen-art-treasures-returned-by-france

Sarr, Felwine and Bénédicte Savoy. 2018. Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain: Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle [Restitution of African art from French public collections: Toward a new relational ethics. Translated from French by Drew S. Burk]. Paris: Philippe Rey. http://restitutionreport2018.com/

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