The Louvre is returning sculptures to West Africa. Here’s how and why it's happening.Roundup
tags: France, art history
John Warne Monroe is associate professor of history at Iowa State University and author of the forthcoming book "Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the Imperial French Invention of Primitive Art."
After years of steadfast resistance, the French government declared on Nov. 23 that it would return 26 sculptures and other artifacts to the Republic of Benin, a nation in West Africa formerly colonized by France. This move, ordered directly by President Emmanuel Macron, is not just a policy reversal — it also marks a startling break with a cherished national self-conception.
As Macron himself has put it, France is among the very few countries in the world “obsessed with universality,” what he admitted some might see as a “pretension … to speak on behalf of the whole of humanity.” It is a telling choice of words: “obsessed” and “pretension.” Unlike his predecessors, Macron is willing to acknowledge the dark side of France’s past as an imperial power, and to seek ways of making amends for it.
To understand the high stakes of this decision, it’s worth taking a closer look at one of the most famous objects due to be returned, a larger-than-life-size iron sculpture of a warrior now on display at the Louvre.
From the early 1600s until its conquest by the French in 1894, much of the southern portion of the current Republic of Benin was an independent kingdom called Dahomey, dominated by the Fon ethnic group. According to the art historian Suzanne Preston Blier, the iron figure now in the Louvre was commissioned by King Glele, who ruled from 1858 to 1889, and made by the sculptor Akpele Kendo Akati. It stood in a special temple in the royal palace in Abomey, the kingdom’s capital, where it served as a powerful weapon of symbolic defense, enacting the ruler’s connection to Gou, god of iron and war.
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