'Artistic awakening' in Benin as return of royal artefacts attracts huge crowds

An exhibition of looted artifacts recently returned to the country, in the Palais de la Marina in Cotonou, Jul 16, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

COTONOU, BENIN (NYTIMES) - For centuries, his ancestors had ruled over a powerful kingdom in what is now Benin, but the first time Mr Euloge Ahanhanzo Glèlè saw the throne of his great-great-great-grandfather was in a Paris museum a decade ago.

"How did it end up here?" he remembered asking himself as he faced the throne of King Glélé, surrounded by artworks that were plundered by French colonial forces at the end of the 19th century.

That throne is now back in Benin after France returned 26 artefacts last year, and on a recent morning Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè bowed and sat barefoot in front of it, just as subjects would do in front of a king, he said.

Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè, a 45-year-old sculptor and one of the thousands of descendants of King Glélé, who reigned over the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century, said he was hopeful the artworks' return would prompt the Beninese to explore their history and artistic heritage.

"The artistic awakening of our population was switched off from the end of the 19th century to 2022," he said. "We are now waking up."

From a trickle to a stream

In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron of France said "African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums" and vowed to return looted artworks.

But for years after that promise, the pieces were returned in little more than a trickle. Now, they are slowly becoming a steady stream, art historians say, and countries across West and Central Africa are exploring how best to exhibit them and how to educate a public that may have never heard of their existence, let alone seen them.

The government of Benin, a West African nation of 12 million people, believes it has found the right way. More than 200,000 people have come to a free exhibition of the artworks in the presidential palace, with 90 per cent of the visitors Beninese, according to the government, which has heavily promoted the show.

Children have asked their parents to bring them because they did not want to miss what friends were discussing at school. Spiritual leaders have travelled from across the country to contemplate the ancient artefacts. Some families lined up for half a day before they could catch a glimpse.

The exhibition, "Art of Benin From Yesterday and Today: From Restitution to Revelation", also has seized on the chance to expose the crowds to artists working now. It showcases 34 contemporary artists from Benin in a bid to better place them on the map of West Africa's thriving contemporary art scene.

"All artists dream of posterity, so we're honoured to be next to them," Mr Julien Sinzogan, one of the exhibited artists, said about the artefacts. "We're now part of posterity, too."

Restoring memories

Following the popularity of the inaugural exhibition in the spring, it reopened last month. On the morning of the reopening, Mr Marcus Hounsou, a 13-year-old French Beninese boy living in France and visiting for the summer, left with his smartphone full of pictures and a lingering thought he said he would need time to address.

"I didn't know any of these artists," he said. "While I know so many French or American ones."

The ancient artefacts, looted by French colonial forces when they sacked the palace of King Béhanzin in 1892, were exhibited until last year at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

They include wooden effigies of Kings Béhanzin and Glélé, depicted as half-man, half-animal; two thrones; and four painted gates from Béhanzin's palace.

Almost all of Africa's ancient artistic heritage remains in Europe and the United States, according to French historian Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of a report on restitutions. Yet, from Germany to Nigeria, Belgium to Congo, and France to Senegal, Ivory Coast and Benin, European and African countries are now working toward making restitutions more systematic.

The return of the 26 artefacts last year was the largest of these acts between a former European colonial power and an African country since Macron's promise in 2017.

Recalling a nation's past

One of sculptor Ahanhanzo Glele's works on display at the Palais de la Marina. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At the presidential palace, Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè, the king's descendant, is also one of the contemporary artists on display. In a room adjacent to the throne, his own terra-cotta sculptures open the contemporary part of the exhibition, the first time his work has been showcased in a Beninese institution.

But he predicted the artefacts' return would not fill in the gaps of people's knowledge of their past overnight.

"Our children don't know our history," said the artist, describing the challenges that Benin now faces in educating its population about a past that was snatched away and kept in European museums for more than a century.

"Even I, when I'm asked about my own ancestors, I often don't know," he said.

Some of that history is now presented by contemporary artists not far from the presidential palace.

Along the port of Cotonou, Benin's largest city, a government-funded wall of street art, which spreads across nearly half a mile, features flashy murals and graffiti celebrating Benin's past and hopes for its future.

Teaching the 'manga generaton'

When the exhibition finishes at the end of August, the objects will travel to Ouidah, once a slave port, where the authorities are building a new slavery museum. The government is also building three additional museums, one of them aimed at promoting the work of contemporary artists like Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè.

On a recent afternoon in his workshop, a courtyard at the back of his home in a working-class district of Cotonou, Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè moulded the clay sculpture of a farmer holding a hoe. Friends and acquaintances stopped by to sip a beer or a soda with him as he worked.

Twenty similar sculptures would follow, all commissioned for one of the museums under construction.

Overlooking some of his work in a small storage room was a message on the wall that read, "Clay helps me find reason."

Mr Ahanhanzo Glèlè, a father of four, said his own children were more interested in manga than their country's history or his sculptures, but that he was determined to change that, inspired in part by the return of his ancestors' belongings.

"I barely tell them about my art and its influences," he said. "I need to do it more."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.