Kingdom Comeback

The spectacular return of Benin’s looted art

Beninese president Patrice Talon (right) attends the opening of “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation” at the Palais de la Marin last month.

LAST MONTH, when Benin’s Palais de la Marina in Cotonou opened its doors, a belated history class swung into session. Organized by the president’s office and titled “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation,” the exhibition paired work by thirty-four contemporary Beninese artists with a trove of twenty-six royal objects pillaged by the French military from the Dahomey Kingdom’s capital of Abomey in 1892. Beninese people remain closely linked to their ancestral culture, they had just been prevented from seeing and interacting with (some of) it for over a century. Not anymore. 

This turn of events can be credited to a growing global restitution movement—initiated by African governments, academics, cultural practitioners, and artists— that has triggered a change in public opinion, museum attitudes, heritage laws, and policy in Europe and the US. After years of ignoring demands for the repatriation of Africa’s cultural heritage, institutions like the Humboldt Forum (last year) and the Smithsonian (two weeks ago) have finally agreed to return stolen objects in their possession to Nigeria. Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa is making moves toward restitution by submitting an inventory of looted objects to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report, coauthored by French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegelase philosopher and economist Felwine Sarr, which very clearly recommended restitution—and identified certain objects by name, history, and provenance—particularly those stolen after military invasions. Some of the treasures displayed in Benin’s exhibition were explicitly mentioned in Sarr and Savoy’s report. Their unconditional return from Paris’s Quai Branly Museum to the Republic of Benin was negotiated last November.

In the days preceding the exhibition, whether you were in the airport, on highways, at market junctions, or in residential neighborhoods, it was impossible to miss what was brewing.

“We have launched a massive nationwide campaign, in the seventy-seven municipalities that make up Benin, communicating in each of the local languages to reach the entire population,” said Benin’s minister of culture, Jean-Michel Abimbola, who took care to note that the event was “free and open to all.”

Nineteenth-century works by Sossa Dede depicting King Glèlè and King Behanzin. Photo: Patrick Grie.

On the first day, over one thousand people queued in front of the president’s office to get a look. Welcomed by uniformed guides, they moved slowly through the exhibition’s massive halls, soaking up the history of the works. Students, working professionals, civil servants, traders, families, the young, the old: They stood before Sossa Dede’s life-size, anthropozoomorphic statues of past Benin kings Glèlè and Béhanzin—portrayed as a lion and a shark, respectively—and tarried in front of the gates from the Royal Palace of Abomey (ca. 1889). As of March 16, 23,000 people had visited the exhibition; it had been open for eleven days. 

When Dansou Orphée, a middle-aged engineer, walked into the presidential palace with his daughter, he decided they didn’t need a guide. He knew this history well—he just hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. Orphée traces his lineage to Béhanzin, the king who famously resisted French incursion in the last decade in the nineteenth century. As they walked around the room, Orphée leaned down to his daughter, pointing at the works in front of them, explaining what they meant. “My daughter is only five, but I want her to see these things early,” he said. 

A few feet away, Rissalath Adebo, an accountant, sat on a bench, taking everything in. She had walked around the palace for an hour and was not quite ready to leave. 

“I studied this when I was in primary school. You study it at school, but you never see it. You have to go elsewhere, to another country to see it, where they stole it from you. So for me, this means a lot.” She mentioned that she had first encountered the Abomey treasures not in Benin, but on a trip to Paris.

At the second half of “Benin Art From Yesterday to Today,” with a painting by Youss Atacora in the background.

When the guides led exhibitiongoers through the second half of the exhibition, showing contemporary works, the ties that bind Beninese artistry from the nineteenth century to the present day became very clear. 

Kiffouli Dossou’s intricately rendered wood masks, for example, bore resemblance to the thrones and statues in the previous section. Yves Apollinaire Pede, a former restorer of bas-reliefs in the Abomey Palace, showed narrative appliqués on canvas depicting current and historic events, gods, royal processions, and symbols of Beninese mythology. Though clearly contemporary, his work is an extension of the court tradition of witness-bearing and recordkeeping on textiles. The exhibition’s website includes a proverb: “It is at the end of the old rope that we weave the new.” This is certainly true of the conversation between historical and contemporary works in the show. 

In an exquisitely staged series, Ishola Akpo exhumes the history of “Agbara Women,” female warriors and nobles who have been left out of the historical archives. Photographed against gray backdrops, the women confront the viewer with a piercing gaze, wearing emblems of royalty or carrying Dane guns as staffs. The staff, or scepter, was the focus of Éliane Aïsso’s contribution, the climax of the contemporary section. To the uninitiated, these scepters may seem just another ceremonial object once wielded by rulers. But they also possessed spiritual significance and were believed to aid communication between the living and the dead. Aisso acknowledged this purpose in a solemn section of her installation, reverberant with disembodied sounds of ritual, spare light angling onto archival photographs. 

This convergence of past and present wasn’t just a curatorial ambition. For the Beninese government—which has recently drawn criticism from journalists, NGOs, and dissidents within the country for repressing political speech and eroding the nation’s democratic institutions—there is far more at stake.

“Look, if there weren’t the twenty-six [restituted] works, and I told you to visit the contemporary Beninese artists, I am sure you wouldn’t have come,” Abimbola said. “But through these twenty-six works, we have an impetus. And with this impetus, we can also show contemporary works, which gives us an opportunity to create a culture of museums.”

At the packed vernissage for “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation.”

Beninese officials are looking to tap into what has been informally termed “remembrance tourism,” using returned artifacts as momentum to drive major investment in the nation’s cultural sector. Benin’s play is not unlike that of Ghana, which dubbed 2019 “The Year of Return,” calling on African Americans to come “home” and reconnect with their roots. The campaign pumped $1.9 billion into the Ghanaian economy. Benin is betting on the same, attracting tourists from neighboring African countries, African Americans, and Afro-Latinx communities, who all share a history of slavery with the country. 

The restituted artifacts from “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today” are scheduled to travel around the nation, holding court in a succession of new museums slated to open between now and 2025. In May, the works will move to the International Museum of Memory and Slavery in Ouidah, a former slave port. Afterwards, they will be on permanent display in their “final destination and birthplace,” the Museum of the Epics of Amazons and Kings of Danhomè in Abomey, according to Coline Toumson-Venite, a presidential adviser on culture. The show’s journey happens to conclude around the same time as the opening, in neighboring Nigeria, of the deeply anticipated Edo Museum of West African Art: a palatial, three-story home for Benin Bronzes, the name given to the thousands of virtuosically metal-cast artworks plundered by the British during the Edo kingdom’s fall in 1897. Designed by David Adjaye, the museum will occupy and incorporate the ruins of the razed city.

Meanhile, the Beninese government is planning an International Vodun Museum in Porto Novo and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Cotonou. Alongside this profusion of museums, ancient palaces will be refurbished and cultural centers will begin to pop up. The Royal Palaces of Dahomey, burned down at Béhanzin’s orders in 1892 to preempt capture by French occupiers, will receive the most lavish restoration, paid for in part by a grant from the French government. It may seem like a stroke of poetic justice, though much of the funding for Benin’s massive touristic investment is also financed by loans from the French Development Agency, which come with an undisclosed below-market interest rate. (After a presentation at the restored site of the Ouidah museum, where this information was announced, curators and journalists whispered about the irony: The former colonizer, whose army had destroyed and pillaged Benin’s ancient cultural infrastructure a century ago, was now paying reparations while profiting at the same time.)

For his part, Alain Godonou, director of the museums program at Benin’s National Agency for Heritage and Tourism Development, noted the significance of building a temple to Benin’s cultural memory—and an investment in its future—on the grounds of a Portuguese slave fort. “This is part of a political vision,” he explained. “We don’t have gas, we don’t have oil, but we have a very rich culture.”