In the 19th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a major West African power, boasting a flourishing slave trade with Europe and a feared corps of Amazon women warriors. Commissioned by the royal court, its art — intricate wood and ivory carvings, metalwork and appliqué cloth — stood as a potent symbol of the kingdom’s might.
But by 1894, Dahomey was annexed by France after a pair of brutal wars. Its artifacts ended up in French museums and private collections.
Now modern-day Benin, the seat of the former Dahomey kingdom, may have the best chance to date of getting them back, as French President Emmanuel Macron vows to make the return of treasures from former African colonies a top priority. That vow will be tested next week, when Benin President Patrice Talon visits France. Restitution of Dahomey artifacts is expected to rank high in (March 6) discussions between the two leaders.
“The question is to give back what has been stolen during the worst conditions of war,” said Marie-Cecile Zinsou, daughter of Benin’s former prime minister and president of the Zinsou Foundation, an organization in the main city, Cotonou, that promotes African art.
“It’s very small for France, but for us it’s everything,” she said of the roughly 5,000 artifacts Benin wants back. “We have nothing left in Benin — we have copies, but no original trace of our history.”
Made during a November speech in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, Macron’s restitution promise has been described as historic and even revolutionary. Over the next five years, he said, the conditions must be met ‘for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
“African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums,” Macron said. “African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.”
Experts believe that if realized, France’s example may prove the tipping point for other former colonial powers, similarly pressured by restitution claims. But while much of Africa’s cultural heritage lies outside the continent — stolen, sold or otherwise expatriated by European soldiers, missionaries and Africans themselves — returning it lays bare a tangle of difficult questions.
Who should receive artifacts that may have changed hands and borders many times over the years? Should private collections, as well as national museums be compelled to return the treasures? And would those returns be permanent or temporary? In France, repatriation may also demand changing current law that recognizes the artifacts as inalienable cultural heritage.
Skeptics argue that many African countries lack national museums or other spaces capable of housing old and fragile artifacts. And apart from a handful of exceptions like Benin, some say, few governments have mounted strong restitution campaigns.
“All these countries have so many problems to solve that it’s not been the priority,” according to Corinne Hershkovitch, a French lawyer specializing in the restitution of cultural goods. “But it has be be a priority if you want to make cultural heritage come back to your country.”