COTONOU, Benin—During a February press conference announcing a new exhibition of newly repatriated treasures, Jean-Michel Abimbola, Benin’s minister of culture, was asked by a British journalist to address the common claim that European museums are better able to care for African artifacts than African ones. He responded curtly.
“I'm not sure we can continue to support this argument vis-à-vis Benin,” Abimbola said. “This will amount to asking whether Black people have souls, and I would not like to answer this question.”
His statement was a strong one and underscored the importance of the new exhibition, titled “Benin Art from Yesterday to Today, from Restitution to Revelation,” which celebrates the return of 26 royal artifacts that had been looted from the Dahomey Kingdom by the French colonial army in 1892. The exhibit, which opened at Cotonou’s Presidential Palace in late February, displays the returned works alongside art by contemporary Beninese artists.