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…
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