On this Sunday in April in Cotonou, Benin, under a blazing sun, a crowd throngs the immense alleys of the Marina, the presidential palace, to admire the exhibition “Art of Benin yesterday and today”, which hosts until the end of May the 26 “historic” pieces, dating from the 19the century, returned to Benin by the Quai Branly museum in Paris. They are exhibited alongside masterful works by some thirty contemporary artists from Benin.
Among the visitors, families, sports associations, young couples like Thibault Hounsa, computer scientist, who is on his second visit with his partner, “happy to see what he had never been able to see. I feared that these were copies that had been sent back to us and that France had kept the originals”, he confides, now reassured.
However, he hopes that “France will return everything that belongs to Benin”. That is several thousand cultural and religious objects stored in the reserves of museums, private collectors or among the descendants of soldiers belonging to the French colonial troops, who brought back to France, some 130 years ago, a real spoil of war.
Regrets and downsides
A few drawbacks taint this event, qualified as“historical” : After five years of tough negotiations with France, Benin expected more objects to be returned. The historian Dieudonné Gnammankou also regrets that Benin did not have a say in the choice of returned works and that the legal transfer of ownership was not recorded for all the objects held by France. “It should then have been up to Benin to decide which works would be exhibited in France or elsewhere in the world, within the framework of cultural cooperation between countries”, he explains.
The Beninese president, Patrice Talon, had publicly expressed his regret that emblematic objects such as the iron statue of the god Gou, currently on display at the Louvre, or the Fâ divination tablet, remain in France.
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