At first glance, it seems to be just another day in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. Motorbike-taxis are everywhere, filling the streets of the country’s economic capital with dust and noise. But inside the swanky presidential palace, something seismic is talking place: over a century after they were looted by the French army, 26 treasures that once belonged to the nation have gone on display to the public.
Art of Benin Yesterday and Today is more than just a stunning show of these ancient works, though. It segues from the looted 19th-century artefacts to work by 34 of the country’s contemporary artists. “This is a form of regained dignity,” says local art historian Didier Houénoudé, “and the culmination of a long fight started by African countries shortly before independence.”
Fulfilling a pledge made by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the stolen artefacts were returned to Benin last year, after being displayed one final time at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The collection – merely a fraction of the priceless Beninese possessions still held by France and other former colonial nations – includes royal thrones, statues and majestically carved doors.
Beside the towering wooden throne of King Ghezo (who ruled what was then called the Dahomey kingdom from 1797 to 1818), the other great repatriated works are three bocios, or protective vodun figures. These lifesize statues, once held in Paris, depict Ghezo and his heirs Glele and Béhanzin. One features a man with the plumage of a bird, the next a lion’s head on human legs, and the third a man with the body of a shark. These reflect the idea that these men were believed to have supernatural powers.
Among the regiments of Dahomey fighters who fought the French were female warriors called Amazons. Ishola Akpo, an emerging Benin artist, decided to recreate images of these soldiers and the queens who ruled over them, using women from northern Benin dressed in majestic clothing and holding weapons. “The project explores the memories of forgotten, neglected and erased pre-colonial African queens,” says Akpo. “I noticed their absence during my research, despite their political importance.”