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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Bénin Des trésors culturels loin du pays natal

by Rosa Moussaoui and Lola Ruscio

Benin’s Cultural Treasures far from their Native Land

Translated Tuesday 30 August 2016, by Arwen Dewey

In an unprecedented move, the government of Benin has requested that the treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey, pillaged during the colonial period, be returned. Paris claims that an "official request" was never received.

From within the tangle of cement, beneath the harsh spotlights of the Musée du Quai Branly, they are crying out to be freed. Scepters topped with ivory and metal figurines that once belonged to the king and other distinguished members of the Abomey court are among the treasures, and a Yoruba-style throne showing the sovereign standing in the shade of a parasol as he examines a line of prisoners destined for the slave trade. A fragile funerary crown of woven pearls that once belonged to Prince Ahanhanzo is displayed nearby. There are wooden doors, carved with the figures of animals; perhaps they once opened into a palace decorated with the images of Voodoo gods. The display mentions nothing about the violence of the colonial period. But there are signs of the war, and of the fierce resistance that the Dahomeans’ last ruler, King Béhanzin, leveraged against the French troops before he was finally overthrown.

A gun is on display among the ritual objects. In 1892, the Parisian press described its owner as a bloodthirsty little kinglet in order to justify the annexation of Dahomey. Three neglected anthropomorphic statues stand just outside the thick glass barrier. They are totems built to protect the kingdom’s soldiers: Half man and half bird; half man and half shark; half man and half lion. Before the colonial period they were the prize jewels in the annual parade of the kingdom’s treasures. All of these objects are labeled "Gift from General Dodds." In 1892, Dodds was the head of the colonial troops that won the ruthless war and ended Béhanzin’s reign. Béhanzin was exiled after his defeat, first to Martinique and then to Algiers, where he passed away in 1906.

One hundred ten years after his death, the Beninese government has taken the unprecedented step of requesting that these treasures, pillaged from the burning Royal Palace of Abomey, be returned to their native land. On July 27th in Cotonou, Minister of State and Secretary-General of the Presidency Pascal Koupaki approved the official request regarding "…the return of the royal treasures of Abomey, taken during the conquest of 1892, to Benin." The government of Benin plans to "…begin negotiations with the French authorities and UNESCO for the return of these cultural objects... currently scattered between foreign museums and private collections."

This is the first time that a former French colony has initiated such a process. But the controversy is nothing new. Aminata Traoré, former Minister of Culture of Mali, says that she was contacted by her French counterpart Catherine Tusca as part of the secretive negotiations preceding the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly. Tusca requested Traoré’s authorization to purchase a Tial statuette belonging to a Belgian collector for the future museum of primitive arts. Refusing to "…participate in the laundering of a work of art that was illegally removed from the country," Traoré proposed that France purchase the statuette and return it to Mali, then request to borrow it. "Her reply to our steering committee was that French taxpayers’ money couldn’t be used to acquire artwork that would be returned to Mali," she remembers. "From that moment on I was excluded from the negotiations, but I later learned that the Malian government, which does not answer to taxpayers, had purchased that statuette in question with the intention of lending it to the museum." The royal treasures of Abomey have also been the objects of a loan, albeit a much shorter one. In 2006, Jacques Chirac requested that the Musée du Quai Branly lend them to the Zinsou Foundation for a period of three months, for an exhibit in Cotonou honoring the centennial of Béhanzin’s death. "We received 250,000 visitors, which shows that this historical and cultural heritage is, symbolically, very important to the Beninese people," says Marie-Cécile Zinsou, president of the foundation. She is delighted with the steps that the Beninese government is taking.

France refuses to acknowledge the colonial pillage

According to Zinsou, the request for restitution represents a shift that is most likely a result of the recent political alternation. "When Béhanzin’s throne was on auction at Sotheby’s in 2004, we reached out to the government of Benin so that they could purchase it. They laughed in our faces. The Zinsou family finally ended up acquiring it, which was financially very difficult," the young woman explains. Louis-Georges Tin, President of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN), is working tirelessly from Paris to support the restitution. He strongly believes that future negotiations will hinge on the return of the treasures pillaged from Benin. "The origin of these first symbolic items is incontestably clear, and they must be returned without delay. Then an inventory needs to be taken," he insists.

Meanwhile, France insists that an "official request" was never received. At this stage, the Minister of Culture has not responded to Benin’s initiative. "We don’t know exactly which objects are being requested," was the Ministry of Culture’s evasive reply. France, proud of its republican values, refuses to recognize the colonial pillage. Without batting an eyelid, Hélène Le Gal, the Élysée’s Advisor on African Affairs, explains that Béhanzin "...gave us his throne, his scepter and the statues of his father and grandfather voluntarily, in accordance with international law." For Aminata Traoré, this is a perfect example of the French government’s unacceptable policy of marginalizing its former colonies. "The works of art honored at the Musée du Quai Branly belong first and foremost to the disinherited people of Mali, Benin, Guinea, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and the Congo," countries that the former colonial power believes are "...incapable of looking after their own cultural heritage," she writes. In 1995, France added its signature to the Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Now is the time to start respecting it.

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