Benin: Historian questions Benin’s decision to delay the repatriation of returned works of art

During a joint press conference in 2018 with Beninese President Patrice Talon, French President Emmanuel Macron renewed his commitment to the return to African countries of works of art looted by France.

Since then, Benin has been demanding the return of its works, many of which should have been repatriated by the end of the year.

But the Beninese authorities have instead decided to exhibit them at the end of October at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, then in January 2022 at the Palais d’Iéna.

It is a decision that calls into question Marie Cécile Zinsou, art historian and president of the Zinsou Foundation.

It is difficult to explain and understand why the government of Benin thinks that exhibiting in Paris makes more sense than exhibiting in Ouidah, where the building of the National Museum has been completely restored to house these works, precisely since the launch of the process. Today for us is a surprise and a misunderstanding. The government seems to want to say that this is a tourist operation and what we are trying to point out is that we have been waiting for this work in Benin for 129 years and we would like to be able to see it now in our countries, and that maybe they have been sufficiently restored in France and maybe it’s not worth waiting another four months.

Last March, a French delegation, led by the director of the musée du quai Branly in Paris, visited the city of Ouidah, in the south of Benin. It was an opportunity to visit the restoration of the old Portuguese fort which will house the works of art. The building usually houses the city’s history museum. Inside, dozens of workers worked from morning to evening to restore it before the opening, scheduled for the end of the year.

Part of the museum’s collection has been relocated to the Maison du Brésil pending the completion of the renovation.

“Benin has restored the Ouidah museum and by doing things well and in a fairly short time, shows that we can accommodate the works in good conditions, as was planned” says Marie Cécile Zinsou

For Marie-Cécile Zinsou, it is important that African youth finally have access to their heritage, their culture and therefore their history. She further explains:

The first exhibition outside the walls of the Quai-Branly took place in Cotonou. It was the exhibition on King Béhanzin. 275,000 people came to see it in three months. I think the numbers speak for themselves. This is perhaps the best answer to people who think heritage is not interesting.

For all parents raising children. There is a desire to know their history and understand their culture. I believe it is a universal feeling. Benin is no exception to this and perhaps in some African countries it is not yet visible as there may be other emergencies and other interests. But as soon as people are given the opportunity to appropriate their culture, they do. It is evident today in Africa

Christopher S. Washington