By Spy Uganda Correspondent
France has returned to Benin 26 works of art looted during the colonial era fuelling more hopes that other European countries will soon follow suit. Germany and Belgium have taken similar steps, initiating restitution processes with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the United Kingdom, whose British Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Benin bronzes, is turning a deaf ear to calls for their return.
A growing number of countries have taken steps to return artworks that were looted during colonial times since French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to “return African heritage to Africa” during a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017. His promise began to take shape on Tuesday when France signed a landmark deal transferring ownership of 26 Beninese works of art to the Republic of Benin.
A day later, huge crowds gathered in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and economic capital, to welcome back the historic treasures.
“President Macron surprised everyone with his promise, we didn’t expect it. All of a sudden, France started to move,” Marie-Cécile Zinsou, president of the Zinsou Art Foundation said.
For the Franco-Beninese dual national, an African art specialist and daughter of former Beninese premier Lionel Zinsou, the push to return artworks is first of all “a global movement, which will be difficult to avoid from now on”.
‘France Lit A Spark’
“France has probably lit a spark” for other countries to follow, she added.
As the debate intensifies, African countries have grown increasingly vocal and assertive in their pursuit. “It’s a big international issue now,” Abba Isa Tijani, the director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said in October. “Anywhere we come across these objects, whether in private collections or in public institutions, we are going to lay claim (…) that we are sure of.”
Benin’s neighbour Nigeria has proactively joined the restitution campaign, negotiating agreements with museums and institutions in the United States, Germany, Ireland and the UK, including the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the National Museum of Ireland and Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.
In the latest development, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC declared last week that it had removed from its collection bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin, a territory located in present-day Nigeria, which included modern-day Lagos.
The American cultural institution now plans to begin a repatriation process for 16 pieces identified as objects looted during a British expedition in 1897 – without any formal request from Nigeria.
In late October, two UK universities also returned to Nigeria objects looted in the Kingdom of Benin. The University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, returned a bronze sculpture purchased by the institution in 1957 and originating from the same 1897 loot.
In Cambridge, Jesus College returned on October 27 a bronze sculpture of a cockerel that had stood in the hall since 1905. The statue had been donated by a student’s parent who took part in the colonial expedition. Students on the British campus had been demanding its return for years, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.