Benin, French Presidents to Discuss Returning African Artifacts

03 March, 2018

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with the president of Benin not long after he promised to return artifacts taken from Africa during colonial times.

Macron will meet with Beninese president Patrice Talon in Paris on March 6. The two leaders are expected to discuss works of art from the former kingdom of Dahomey. Many of these artifacts were taken, and are now kept in French museums and private collections.

If the Macron government keeps its promise, experts say, its action might influence other European countries facing similar restitution demands.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore leave the Ouagadougou University, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Nov. 28, 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore leave the Ouagadougou University, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Nov. 28, 2017.

The Quai Branly museum in Paris holds thousands of African artifacts. These include Kwele masks from Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Other art works include Baoule and Dan statues from the Ivory Coast, and royal Dahomey artifacts from what is modern-day Benin.

Museums in France and around Europe that hold African art are now reconsidering their collections. Many people are questioning if some of the objects were stolen or taken unfairly from countries that were former European colonies.

Restitution claims are not new. But now, President Emmanuel Macron is giving them new importance.

During a speech in Ouagadougou last November, Macron said Africa's cultural heritage could no longer remain in European museums and private collections.

Over the next five years, he said, artifacts in France must be temporarily or permanently returned to Africa.

Mechtild Rossler is the head of the World Heritage Center of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. She says that the debate about African art has started in France.

"Each of the museums need to have a look at their own collections and identify pieces which may have been trafficked illegally or may have come out of some dubious circumstances during colonialism."

In 2016, Benin became the first African country to ask for the return of its artifacts. The country is seeking several thousand pieces it says were taken from the former Kingdom of Dahomey by French soldiers and religious workers.

Many works of art from Benin are at the Quai Branly museum. But earlier French administrations have said the art was now French property.

Beninese people, like Marie-Cecile Zinsou, disagree. She heads the Zinsou Foundation in Cotonou, which supports African art.

"Benin heritage is shown in France. It's shown in New York. It's shown in London, it's shown in Berlin. The only place where you can't see it is in Benin...the French left with everything."

There are also important economic considerations in the debate. Art attracts foreign visitors to countries. These tourists, says Louis-Georges Tin, bring economic activity. Tin heads the Representative Council of France's Black Associations, a group that is calling for restitution.

"If you want tourists to come to your country, you need to have a cultural legacy. And how can you do that when most of your legacy has been robbed by many people in the Western countries?"

Some people say African art is now something that belongs to the whole world. They argue that many African countries do not have museums to store artifacts that could easily be damaged.

Others believe these issues can be resolved. A group of Paris art museums, for example, built a small museum in Benin. They donated art from their own collections to it.

Gallery owner Robert Vallois led the effort. Vallois believes one answer would be to keep the art in European museums for now, where it is well preserved. Then, the goal would be to have artworks travel widely in Africa.

Vallois considers the artifacts as national treasures of both France and Africa. What is important, he says, is that the public in both places has access to them.

I'm Phil Dierking.

This story was originally written by Lisa Bryant for VOAnew. Phil Dierking adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

Do you think African artifacts should be returned to their original countries? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

artifact –n. objects made by people in the past

dubious –adj. doubtful, causing doubt or uncertainty

heritage –n. the traditions, beliefs and objects that are part of a group or nation

legacy –n. something such as property that is received from someone who has died or from people in the past

kingdom –n. the area ruled by a king

restitution –n. the act of returning something that was lost or stolen to its owner