‘Artistic Awakening’ in Benin as Return of Royal Artifacts Attracts Huge Crowds

COTONOU, Benin — For centuries, his ancestors had ruled over a powerful kingdom in what is now Benin, but the first time 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 artifacts 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.”

Statues representing King Glélé and his successor, King Béhanzin, as half-man, half-animal, at the exhibition, “Art of Benin From Yesterday and Today.”Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that “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’re 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 percent of the visitors Beninese, according to the government, which has heavily promoted the show.

Children have asked their parents to bring them because they didn’t want to miss what friends were discussing at school. Spiritual leaders have traveled from across the country to contemplate the ancient artifacts. Some families have 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.

Harlen Zannou, 12, visiting the contemporary art portion of the exhibition in Cotonou, Benin, with his father and little sister. Children have asked their parents to take them so they don’t miss out on what their classmates have been discussing.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

“All artists dream of posterity, so we’re honored to be next to them,” Julien Sinzogan, one of the exhibited artists, said about the artifacts. “We’re now part of posterity, too.”

Following the popularity of the inaugural exhibition in the spring, it reopened last month. On the morning of the reopening, 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 artifacts, 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 the French historian Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of a report on restitutions. Yet from Germany to Nigeria; Belgium to the Democratic Republic of 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 artifacts last year was the largest of these acts between a former European colonial power and an African country since Mr. Macron’s promise in 2017.

But the Beninese authorities have repeatedly said they want more.

“It’s not possible anymore to say, ‘At the time, we looted some war spoils; too bad, now it’s ours,’” Benin’s culture minister, Jean-Michel Abimbola, said in an interview.

Mr. Abimbola said that it made little sense for Benin to claim all the objects the Quai Branly museum holds from the country — more than 3,500 of them. “We want the most emblematic artworks, those speaking to our soul,” Mr. Abimbola said.

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.

One of Mr. Ahanhanzo Glèlè’s works on display in the Palais de la Marina in Cotonou last month.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

But he predicted the artifacts’ 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.”

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.

On a recent evening, an artist was busy finishing a painting of voodoo priestesses, while teenagers nearby posed in front of a mural depicting the Amazons of Dahomey, the all-female army that famously fought for the eponymous kingdom. Other artworks showed masks worn by Yoruba dancers and a fictional Beninese astronaut walking on the moon. Upon completion next year, the wall is vying to be the world’s longest piece of street art at nearly a mile.

President Patrice Talon of Benin, a former businessman elected in 2016 — who critics say has turned a model of democracy into a repressive state that stifles political opposition and prosecutes journalists — has vowed to harness a sense of patriotism through artistic expression, as long as it depicts a glorious past or present.

An art aficionado himself, according to his advisers, Mr. Talon has given over two gigantic walls of the exhibition space in the presidential palace where he works to a 32-year-old mural painter, Drusille Fagnibo. The Amazon fighters she depicted now tower above the contemporary artworks toward the exhibition’s end (and Mr. Talon inaugurated a 98-foot-tall statue of an Amazon warrior that towers over the city).

Drusille Fagnibo with a mural she painted along the nearly half-mile-long art wall in Cotonou. Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Despite the exhibition’s overall success, some say it falls short of letting Beninese people interact with the artifacts. The exhibition’s explanatory text and the free tours offered by guides are available only in French, not in Fon, the local language.

“We need to think of African visitors — those who don’t have access to French, and those coming from Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso,” said Didier Houénoudè, a professor of art history at the University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin’s main public university.

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 molded 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, some 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. Ahanzo Glèlè, a father of four, said that 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.”

Mr. Ahanhanzo Glèlè, at his workshop in Cotonou.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times
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