Macron greets ‘new journey’ as France returns looted treasures from Benin

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President Emmanuel Macron hailed a watershed moment Wednesday when France returned 26 artifacts looted during the colonial era to Benin in a special ceremony at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. The treasures were embarking on a “journey to return home,” Macron said.

The 26 pieces in the collection known as the “Treasures of Abomey” were looted by French forces in 1892 and have been on final display at the Quai Branly museum before being shipped to the West African country later this month.

The decision to return them followed growing calls in Africa for European countries to return colonial loot from museums.

At an official ceremony at the Quai Branly museum on Wednesday, Macron said the handover of the art pieces represented an opportunity for “the people of Africa to speak their truth through their artifacts.”

Shortly after his election in 2017, Macron told an audience of students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso that he would do “everything possible” to return some of Africa’s cultural heritage looted by colonial France.

Four years later, Macron celebrated the beginning of what he hoped would be a “fair restitution” of looted heritage pieces.

“We have fought to get these items back home,” Macron said, referring to the challenges of the restitution process, which include training curatorial teams in Benin. The effort was worthwhile and historic, he added. “The journey that now awaits us is a fair journey. It is the right way forward that opens many other paths ahead. ”

France’s restitution of artifacts from Benin has had ramifications in Europe and its former colonies, opening debates about looted artifacts currently housed in museums and institutions in various Western European nations.

About 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe, French art historians estimate. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone has some 70,000 African objects, while the British Museum in London has tens of thousands more.

Exhibitions in a former slave trade center

Calls for restitution culminated last year with a vote in the French parliament, where lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the return of a group of artifacts to Benin and Senegal, another former French colony.

They will be on display at various sites in Benin, including a former Portuguese fort in the city of Ouidah, once a slave trade center, while awaiting the completion of a museum in Abomey to house them.

Benin’s Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola called the return of the works a “historic milestone” and the beginning of greater cooperation between the two countries. The French Development Agency will allocate some 35 million euros to the “Museum of the Saga of the Amazons and the Danhomè Kings” to be built in Abomey under a promise signed this year.

The history of the “Treasures of Abomey” is as dramatic as their sculpted forms. In November 1892, Colonel Alfred Dodds led a French expeditionary force robbing the Kingdom of Danhomè, located in the south of present-day Benin.

French troops stormed the Abomey Palace, home of King Behanzin, and seized many royal objects, including the 26 artifacts that Dodds donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in the 1890s. Since the 2000s, the objects have been housed at the Quai Branly.

The official transfer of the 26 pieces is expected to be signed in Paris on November 9, with the art expected to be in Benin a few days later.

( Jowhar with AFP and AP)