Benin President Patrice Talon on Saturday will inaugurate an exhibition of historic artworks returned by France last year, nearly 130 years after they were stolen by colonial forces. The pieces are to be displayed next to works of 34 contemporary artists, as part of a 1-billion-euro initiative to ramp up the country's cultural infrastructure.
The 26 pieces, some considered sacred in Benin, will be displayed from Sunday in a 2,000-square-metre (21,500-square-foot) space in the presidential palace in Cotonou in a show entitled "Benin art yesterday and today".
The return of artefacts by France comes as calls grow in Africa for Western countries to hand back colonial spoils from their museums and private collections.
Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have all received requests from African countries to return lost treasures. Germany and Belgium have taken similar steps to France, initiating restitution processes with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The 26 pieces returned in November after two years of negotiations between Paris and Cotonou, were stolen in 1892 by French colonial forces from Abomey, capital of the former Dahomey kingdom located in the south of modern-day Benin.
"With this exhibition, we are returning to the Benin people part of their soul, part of their history and their dignity," Benin Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola told AFP.
The objects "were taken from a kingdom, but they are returning to a republic".
Before its unification Benin, consisted of several kingdoms, including Dahomey, which was known for its vibrant artistic culture.
In the first room of the exhibition, immense black walls offer solemnity for a display of the thrones of Dahomey, including the wood and metal sculpture throne of king Ghezo.
"Since it was installed, I haven't stopped contemplating it," said Theo Atrokpo, one of the exhibition guides.
"I had already seen it in the Quai Branly museum in France, but to see it here, home with us, it brings back part of our soul and connects with our history."
President Talon will officially inaugurate the event on Saturday evening before it opens to the public.
Alongside the royal treasures, the works of 34 contemporary artists have been selected for the exhibition.
"It's very emotional to be in front of this throne. But I never imagined it would be so large," said Laeila Adjovi, a French-Benin artist whose work is also being displayed.
"This restitution has kick-started a plan to ramp up Benin's cultural investment," said FRANCE 24's Georja Calvin-Smith reporting from Cotonou.
"Over the next four years, an estimated 1 billion euros is going to be invested in the country’s cultural infrastructure, with the construction of four world-class museums focusing on everything from the history of slavery, to voodoo and contemporary art. The plan is to make art, culture and the tourism that hopefully comes with this investment a major part of the country's economy."
"The return of these first 26 works are also a part of a larger push to try to reclaim parts of Benin's artistic heritage that are currently being held elsewhere."
"The show ties in with the government's plans to put Benin on the map as a global cultural hub."
French President Emmanuel Macron has worked to restore African heritage, as part of his broader efforts to turn the page on France’s troubled relationship with Africa. During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, the leader pledged to "return African heritage to Africa", recognising the “undeniable crimes of European colonisation”.
Benin's culture minister said discussions were ongoing to return other objects, including the sculpture of the god Gou, which is in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
French lawmakers passed a bill in 2020 allowing Paris to return artefacts to both Benin and Senegal, another former French colony, more than a century after they were looted by colonial forces.
Some were seized by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed down to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe and the United States.
But others were gifts to missionaries or acquired by African art collectors at the start of the 20th century or discovered by scientific expeditions.
A report commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them at the Quai Branly alone.
France's restitution to Benin of these 26 works of art has fuelled hopes that other European countries and cultural institutions will follow suit. The report noted that hundreds of thousands of other objects are housed in Belgium, the UK, Austria and Germany. The national museums of Africa, on the other hand, rarely have collections exceeding 3,000 works. These objects also often have less artistic value.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)