Benin holds a highly political exhibition centred around restituted artworks

By Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Thursday, 24 February 2022 11:56

Benin’s President Patrice Talon at the opening of the exhibition dedicated to the royal treasures that France returned on 19 February 2022 at the presidential palace. © DR / Benin Presidency.

The works that France returned are - finally - on display in Cotonou. The exhibition, which is being held at the presidential palace, is both historic and symbolic.

From Cotonou to Ouidah, passing through Porto-Novo, it is impossible to miss the posters that have popped up over the last few days along the main roads in the southern part of the country. The information has circulated everywhere: on the radio waves, television screens, the front pages of newspapers and even in schools. After 129 years in exile, the Beninese can finally admire the 26 works of art that the French general Alfred Dodds looted in 1892 from the kingdom of Abomey’s treasury.

The works, which France returned on 10 November last year after many years of bitter negotiations, are on display at the Marina Palace until 22 May. What better setting than the presidential palace for this event, which had to be worthy of this historic and symbolic moment?

Past and present meet

The exhibition space – which takes up more than 2,000 m2 of a building located at the heart of the head of state’s gardens – offers the many visitors a unique way to wander. The 26 works are presented alongside 100 or so pieces of contemporary art created by 34 Beninese artists, past and present.

Among them are some of the most renowned creators of the Beninese contemporary art scene, such as Dominique Zinkpè, many artists’ “tutor”, and Julien Sinzogan, who is known for his acrylics on the slave trade. The voodoo-inspired paintings by Yves Apollinaire Pédè, who died in 2019, also found their place next to works from another century. Elinae Aïsso, for her part, presented an enchanting sound and light installation, De l’Invisible au Visible, in which she stages 22 asens – portable voodoo altars that serve as messengers between the living and the dead.

Our approach is neither vindictive nor warlike. We are not asking for all the works on display everywhere to be returned, that would be absurd.

This is a spectacular and original scenography in which the past and present seem to respond to each other. The message is twofold: there is a desire to both reappropriate history “in the present”, but also to prove that plundering and dispossession have in no way diminished the Beninese art scene’s vitality and creativity.

To encourage Beninese to attend, the exhibition is free, provided that they register in advance and present a simple form of identification. The gamble seems to have already paid off, as the number of visitors has exceeded the organisers’ objectives. Although 500 visitors were expected on the first day of the exhibition, 1,147 Beninese passed through the palace gates on 20 February.

Beyond the sheer number of visitors, the extent of their fervour is striking. On Sunday, the emotion was palpable in the exhibition space. Some even bowed or kneeled solemnly before the Abomey treasures, in order to honour these pieces containing the souls of the ancestors who had returned home.

The day before, during the official inauguration, Benin’s President Patrice Talon had been surrounded by a dozen kings from all over the country, in full regalia, sceptres in hand. The head of state also expressed “his pride and faith in what we were, what we are and what we will be.”

Extended hand

The Beninese President took advantage of the event to promote national harmony and reach out to some of his political opponents. He had notably invited Thomas Boni Yayi’s former prime minister, Lionel Zinsou – who returned to Cotonou in the presidential plane after three years in exile – as well as former president Nicéphore Soglo to the opening.

“A creative event of this scope is above any controversy,” said Zinsou, who was visibly happy to be back in Benin. The one who had gone up against Talon during the 2016 presidential election made sure to congratulate the head of state. “Just like he promised in his campaign slogan, he revealed Benin,” said Zinsou. This raised a few eyebrows among his – former? – political allies.

Former Beninese President Nicéphore Soglo, during the exhibition at the Marina Palace, February 19, 2022. DR / Beninese Presidency

A historical symbol and a tool of political strategy, the exhibition is also a means for the Beninese leader to promote the rich pool of contemporary artists to the major international players in art and culture. Many exhibition curators, historians, museum directors and institutions made the trip to Cotonou for the occasion.

The question now is what happens afterwards? When, exactly, will Act II of the restitution process be launched? “These 26 works are only the first episode in a series that promises other sequences,” says Jean-Michel Abimbola, minister of tourism, culture and the arts, confirming that Benin does not intend to stop at this first victory. Firm on the principles and the objective, the minister is also cautious and diplomatic about the strategy undertaken.

“Our approach is neither vindictive nor warlike. We are not asking for all the works on display everywhere to be returned, that would be absurd,” he says. “On the other hand, we are in favour of circulating the works and we are also prepared to consider the possibility of copies.”

In the corridors of the exhibition, between the statues of the kings of yesteryear, Abimbola unabashedly says he hopes that one day, Benin will receive works on loan from the Louvre, such as the Mona Lisa. Smiling, he also puts forward the idea of creating a “Cotonou Louvre”, similar to the one Paris set up in Abu Dhabi.

Towards Act II?

His French counterpart, Roselyne Bachelot, who came to Cotonou accompanied by Emmanuel Kasarhérou, director of the Quai Branly Museum, was more cautious. She nonetheless said that “this restitution work continues.” The recent visit of Jean-Luc Martinez – the Louvre’s former director, whom France’s President Emmanuel Macron asked last August to look into the feasibility of a framework law aimed at systematising and better organising future restitutions – is a sign of this.

The hopes are not only cultural and historical. Abimbola wants to make Benin “the nerve centre of artistic creation and dissemination on the continent” because he intends “to put creation at the service of development.”

Between now and 2026, the government plans to invest €1bn, half of which will come from private funds, into an ambitious investment programme. By the end of 2024, no less than four museums will be built in the country.

The first, the Musée International de la Mémoire de l’Esclavage (Mime), in the former Portuguese fort of Ouidah, is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The second, the Musée de l’Epopée des Amazones et des Rois du Danxomè (Meard), will be located on the former royal site of Abomey. The Musée International du Vodun (MIV) is also being created in Porto-Novo, and the Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC) is finally due to open in the centre of Cotonou.

Beninese President Patrice Talon and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on9 February 2021 at the Élysée Palace. DR / Presidency of the French Republic

“Heritage is an economic asset,” says Alain Godonou, founder of the École du Patrimoine Africain in Porto-Novo, who is now in charge of museums at the Agence Nationale du Patrimoine et du Tourisme (ANPT). The growing number of projects in the tourism sector, one of the growth levers identified by the Beninese authorities, is proof of this. On the road linking Cotonou to Ouidah, a Club Med is under construction.

The lakeside town of Ganvié has begun its transformation. The only fly in the ointment are the hopes founded on the W and Pendjari parks tourist attraction, in the northern part of the country. This project to build a luxury lodge may come to a sudden halt because of the jihadist threat, which is spreading towards the Gulf of Guinea countries and threatens the country’s hopes for tourist development. Another complex and difficult battle lies ahead.

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