Looted treasures begin long journey back from France to Benin
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PARIS – More than a century after French colonial troops ransacked a West African royal palace and seized its treasures, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday began the official transfer of 26 of these artifacts to Benin in the part of the first large-scale act of restitution in Africa by a former European colonial power.
Mr. Macron spoke during a ceremony at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, where the objects are on display for the last time, until October 31. The President will complete the transfer in a signing ceremony with President Patrice Talon of Benin at the Élysée Palais, after which the treasures will leave France for good.
The restitution of objects is the tangible and powerfully symbolic result of a confluence of events in Europe: a belated questioning of its colonial past, fueled by a contemporary questioning of sexism, racism and other social inequalities.
This re-examination was particularly arduous in France, which maintained close ties with its former colonies in Africa decades after their official independence. The restitution is part of Mr Macron’s attempt to reestablish relations with them even as he tried to deflect a conservative backlash at the national level.
“The goal of this adventure is not for France to get rid of all the heritage of others. It would be a terrible sight, ”Macron said during the ceremony.
The 26 items returned to Benin were looted from a royal palace in 1892 when French forces invaded the country then known as Dahomey and made it a French colony for more than six decades. Their assault ended the reign of King Behanzin, who had resided in the palace of Abomey, a city in what is now southern Benin.
Highlights of the collection include a wooden effigy of King Behanzin depicted as half man, half shark, a pair of elaborate wooden thrones, and four painted palace doors.
Upon arrival in Benin, the artifacts will initially be on display in a museum in the town of Ouidah, where slaves were once sold by the Portuguese. They will then be transferred to the grounds of the royal palace in Abomey, where a new museum is under construction. The two museums are among the beneficiaries of a billion euros, or about $ 1.16 billion, spent since 2016 on the country’s cultural infrastructure in order to make Benin a tourist destination, said the Minister of Foreign Affairs of country, Aurélien Agbénonci, during the ceremony in Paris.
Wednesday’s events marked the start of a crucial new chapter in a process that began in 2017, when Mr. Macron said in a speech in Burkina Faso that he could “not accept that much of the heritage culture of several African countries to be in France.He then commissioned a report on the restitution from two experts, the historian Bénédicte Savoy and the economist Felwine Sarr.
Ms Savoy and Mr Sarr recommended in 2018 that “all objects taken by force or presumed acquired under unfair conditions” by the French military, scientific explorers or administrators between the late 1800s and 1960s be returned – if their countries of origin requested them.
The report sent shock waves through European museums. Yet today, many other countries seem to follow France’s lead.
Over the past year, Germany announced the return of some 1,100 Benin bronzes, priceless sculptures seized during a British raid in 1897 on what was then known as the Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria. A Dutch panel has recommended the unconditional return of all items stolen from the former colonies of the Netherlands, and the Belgian Museum of Africa has started talks to return the looted artifacts to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In a speech at the ceremony, Ms. Savoy drew a parallel with German history. “Just as there was a before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there will be a before and after the return to Benin of the works looted by the French army in 1892,” she declared. “Europe’s arrogance towards Africans’ legitimate desire to reconnect with their heritage is now a thing of the past.
In an interview a few days earlier, Mr Sarr said he felt “a paradigm shift in Western public opinion, that works must be returned,” and said politicians such as President Macron “feel this change of opinion “.
Politically, six months before the next presidential elections in France, Mr. Macron has focused his energies on winning over right-wing voters. But his handling of looted art from Africa and other aspects of French history allows him to woo left-wing voters, who polls show are largely disappointed with Mr. Macron’s presidency.
In recent weeks, Mr. Macron has hosted a conference bringing together leaders of African civil society and organized by Achille Mbembe, Cameroonian intellectual and leader of postcolonial thought. He also became the first head of state to attend the commemoration of the massacre of Algerian independence protesters by the Paris police six decades ago, angering right-wing politicians who accused him of “repenting” .
Emmanuel Kasarhérou, the president of the Quai Branly museum, said in an interview that besides Benin and Senegal – to which France returned a historic sword in 2019 – other countries had filed formal restitution requests to the French authorities. : Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia. , Mali and Chad. These requests were examined by French museum experts in collaboration with teams from each of these countries.
The main factor to consider was whether the items had been taken without consent, he said.
“It is difficult for a French person to go to the British Museum and say ‘Give us back all French art’, or for a Dutchman to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and say ‘Give us back all that is Dutch. It makes no sense, “he added.
“The word ‘restitution’ applies to objects that have been acquired illegally,” Kasarhérou said.
The ceremony was followed with particular interest by the artist Roméo Mivekannin, the great-great-grandson of King Behanzin, the sovereign deposed by France during the 1892 raid.
Mr. Mivekannin, who lives and works in France, said the Beninese people were “dismembered” by the looting of Abomey, as the stolen items were “used daily” in community rituals and ceremonies. When they were placed in the reserves and display cases of French museums for more than a century, “it was as if they had been mummified”.
Now that they are returning home, he said, “the Beninese nation is regaining its dignity”.
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