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Benin – a move toward the restitution of treasures pillaged during the colonial conquest

Translated Monday 9 April 2018, by Jane Swingler

Following his meeting with the Benin president, Patrice Talon, Emmanuel Macron expressed his willingness for “temporary or permanent restitution” of African cultural wealth currently held in French museums.

Will the recade axes, the throne and arms of King Behanzin, the anthropomorphic statuettes and the carved doors of the Palace of Abomey, pillaged during the colonial conquest, soon be leaving the musée du quai Branly? On Monday evening, standing beside Patrice Talon, his Beninois counterpart, Emmanuel Macron reiterated the commitment he made last autumn in Ouagadougou, to fulfil the conditions necessary for “temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage” within five years. To this end, the French president has requested that “two indisputable leading figures”, the art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese intellectual Felwine Sarr, undertake “strategic planning and consultations”, leading to “concrete proposals” by next November.

Moving toward a more flexible exchange of artwork between France and Benin

Emmanuel Macron’s tone and stance stand in stark contrast to those of his predecessor. On 27 July, 2016, in an unprecedented move, the government of Benin called for the restitution of the treasures of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin. Initially, the Elysée Palace did not even acknowledge receipt of this request, using the absence of an official approach as an excuse. One of François Hollande’s advisors even went as far as to state, straight-faced, that Behanzin had “freely given his throne and sceptre and the statues of his father and grandfather” to the colonial troops of General Dodds, who ransacked the city of Abomey in 1892. Several months later, in a letter addressed to Aurélien Agbénonci, his Beninois counterpart, the Foreign Affairs minister Jean-Marc Ayrault confirmed the French refusal to return this illegally-acquired cultural wealth to the former colony. “The artefacts that you refer to have for many years, in some cases more than a century, been the property of the French state. In compliance with current legislation, they are subject to the principles of inalienability, imprescriptibility and non-seizability. Consequently, their restitution is impossible,” stated the senior diplomat. As a compensatory measure, France expressed its willingness to undertake “wide-ranging joint museum projects” and “lend" Benin the royal treasure from Abomey, currently on display in the musée du quai Branly, as it had done previously in 2007, on Jacques Chirac’s initiative, for an exhibition by the Zinsou foundation in Cotonou marking the centennial of the death of Behanzin.

While awaiting the outcomes of the study entrusted to Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, Emmanuel Macron desires “a greater exchange of artwork” between France and Benin, with “loans from French collections”.

Following a request from the Elysée Palace, Stéphane Martin, the president of the quai Branly museum, should soon be visiting Bénin, working with Beninois teams to examine the conditions under which artwork and artefacts, initially loaned but potentially to be returned in the long term, are displayed and conserved. This problem of conservation is one of the main arguments put forward by those opposed to the restitution to Africa of its historic heritage. According to Alain Rusco, a specialist in colonial history, it is an unacceptable argument. “If today, African countries are without the infrastructure, as well as the human and financial resources required to conserve their cultural heritage, it is a direct consequence of colonial domination and the subsequent neo-colonial policies which have resulted in the dismantling of public structures. Any process of restitution should therefore include a robust policy for scientific and financial support,” he insists. In legal terms, in order to remove this cultural wealth from “France’s inalienable heritage”, it will be necessary to pass a law. Such procedures for declassification have until now only been used for human remains. Among these are the body of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, repatriated and buried in South Africa in 2002, Maori heads returned to New Zealand in 2012, the skull of the insurgent Kanak chief Ataï, returned to his descendants in 2014 and, in the near future, the skulls of resistance fighters from the colonial conquest, currently kept in the Musée de l’Homme and which in December, Emmanuel Macron declared himself willing to return to Algeria.

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