The 26 royal treasures returned by France are on display in the Festival and People’s Hall of the Presidential Palace in Benin. The official opening ceremony of the exposition took place on 19 February. The Head of State, Patrice Talon himself, presided over the events. Entitled “Art of Benin, yesterday and today: from restitution to revelation”, the exposition is presented in two parts.
The 26 art works are housed in a space of more than 2,000m2, which has been transformed into a museum of international standards and offers an original walk to visitors. These are divided into three separate areas. The space of the so-called polychrome doors of the kingdom, the gigantic ceremonial thrones of the kings Ghézo and Glèlè as well as the Kataclè of Béhanzin whose emblem, represented by a shark, is majestically erected. Then we have the space of the protective statues of Dahomey. These statues, all in attack position, with a height of only 1m60, weigh up to 220kg. Finally, the arts and crafts area with the emblematic “asens”.
Alongside these royal works, there are a hundred or so pieces of contemporary art created by 34 Beninese artists of the past and present. Thus, the creations of renowned artists such as Dominique Zinkpè, Julien Sinzogan, Yves Apollinaire Pédè, Ponce Zannou… are beautifully represented.
Past and the present are mixed together.
Through this diptych exposition, the past and the present are mixed together. It is a historical symbol with a double connotation: the desire to re-appropriate the past. And beyond that, the proof that looting and dispossession have in no way dulled the enthusiasm and artistic creativity of the Beninese. The aim is to connect the Beninese to their culture. This is a masterstroke that can safely be attributed to the executive. The signs of veneration, prostration and genuflection observed by some Beninese in front of the works of Abomey demonstrate the pride of the people in being in front of pieces of the soul of the ancestors who have returned to the country. Moreover, Jean-Michel Abimbola, Benin’s Minister of Culture, said that by organising this exposition, “the Beninese government wishes to give back to the Beninese people a part of their soul, their history and their dignity. One of the visitors, without paying attention to our microphone, exclaimed. “Wow! It doesn’t look like it’s happening in Benin…
When Patrice Talon reveals Benin to the Beninese
“It is here, the revealed Benin”. This was Patrice Talon’s comment at the opening ceremony of the Beninese art work exposition. This statement seems to make sense when we go back to the year 2016 when the leader of the rupture presented the programme of his mandate called “Benin Revealed”. Indeed, Benin is at a turning point in its history with solid growth, sustained investment, a controlled deficit and debt according to experts. This revelation of the country is taking place in all sectors of activity. In the field of art, culture and tourism, huge projects are underway.
Indeed, many Beninese had never heard of these royal works looted by the coloniser. It was like a whole new story that people had to integrate. Yet it was a defining, memorable and emblematic passage or struggle for their ancestors. But since he came to power, the champion of the rupture has taken the necessary steps to recover what was stolen from the nation: a history, a heritage, a memory. Patrice Talon has succeeded in overcoming the taboo; a first restitution of cultural property in Africa, the echoes of which have reverberated to the farthest reaches of the world and which makes the Beninese proud. The current tenant of the Marina expressed himself in these terms: “… I strive in my own way to reveal Benin to ourselves and to others. This is the Benin revealed! There it is, the revealed Benin! (pointing to the exhibition hall).
Talking about royal treasures does not necessarily have the same effect as when one finds oneself in front of these pieces that date back at least a century and still retain the spirit of their ancestors’ glorious past. Talon himself will say: “…when I find myself in front of certain works, I get goose bumps…”. This means that a visit to contemplate these works leaves no Beninese indifferent. Moreover, the exposition is also a sign that Benin is a country of culture by excellence, and this through generations. With the sacredness of these works, no speech could accurately express what one feels. “Faced with such greatness of our past and such genius of our present, and such certainty of what we will be tomorrow, there are no words, no words that are worthwhile… I vibrate with emotion, pride and faith in what we were, what we are and what we will be”, confided the Head of State.
Culture as a vehicle for national unity
Patrice Talon, dare we say it, being the instigator of the revealed Benin, scores a point in the hearts not only of the populations but also in the ranks of these political opponents. Indeed, the presence of some of his political antagonists such as former president Nicéphore Soglo and his 2016 challenger Lionel Zinsou is quite illustrative. Thus, Soglo is known for his acerbic discourse towards the Talon governance. Since 2016, he has not yet been seen alongside his younger brother and speaking almost the same language. Seeing him at the exposition ceremony shows that culture is a factor in political decisiveness.
Read also Talon-Soglo rapprochement: A giant step towards peace?
In addition, the other presence that brings to mind national harmony is that of President Boni Yayi’s former prime minister. Lionel Zinsou was also at the Marina Palace, alongside his 2016 challenger, to admire the magnitude of these works and honour the memory of his ancestors. Sentenced to three years of ineligibility and in exile since then, his presence could be a helping hand from the current tenant of the Marina for reconciliation and peace. “As he promised in his campaign slogan, he has revealed Benin,” Lionel Zinsou was quick to say, congratulating the Head of State before adding that the exposition goes beyond the opposition. As if to say, in other words, that which binds us together exceeds that which divides us. ” When there is an event that goes beyond you, like this one, it is above any political controversy. Art love of the fatherland is above all quarrels “said the former prime minister.
Apart from culture, only a football match won by the Beninese Squirrels can unite the various political opponents around the same cause. Moreover, the Minister of Culture, Jean-Michel Abimbola, indicated that the objective of the Beninese government was to make this exposition “the seed of national unity”.
A vital contemporary art scene
As a reminder, the executive also aims to promote new Beninese artistic talent at the international level. An exhibition of contemporary works is also on the shelves of the Presidency to show that Benin’s artistic genius has endured, despite the dispossession of some part of its heritage. Yves Appollinaire Pèdé’s monumental tapestries that revalorise vodùn, Dimitri Fagbohoun’s hair installation, Emo de Medeiros’s Afro-futuristic robots and Moufouli Bello’s monumental and colourful paintings show the artistic vivacity of Benin’s contemporary scene.
It can be said that the exhibition has already been a success. Thousands of Beninese have already crossed the gates of the presidential palace. Until 22 May 2022, the Marina Palace opens its doors for a unique exhibition experience of restored royal treasures and contemporary works from Benin. All you have to do is visit three centuries of Beninese art history through a unique museum tour.