Culture in Benin

In 2022 a white lorry rounded a corner in the city of Cotonou, Benin, and was greeted with a cheering crowd. Through the sea of waving hands, you could just read the message on the side of the van. It said, ‘Restitution des tresors royaux de Benin’. The lorry contained 26 works of sculpture and cultural artefacts which, after 130 years of absence, had just been returned to Benin by France. French soldiers stole the art after invading the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1892.

The treasure trove included statues of kings, the thrones of King Ghezo and King Gegle, wood and metal doors from King Glele’s palace, and the copper and silver portable altar of King Behanzin. Whilst nine of the works had been on display in Paris, 17 had been languishing in storage.

For the 66 days they were displayed, free to visit, in Cotonou Palace, 200,000 people came to see them, 90 percent of them from Benin. “I’ve seen people in tears,” said Azu Nwagbogu – founder and director of the African artists’ foundation in Lagos, in an interview for France24. “Benin is one of the smallest countries on the continent and it’s leading the charge, it’s put on an incredible exhibition.”

The charge is this: an endeavour to return African art – the majority of which is still held outside of the continent – back to where it belongs.

Benin art outside Benin

Of course, Benin’s artistic heritage does not comprise these 26 treasures alone – but their return marks a sea change in how African art is held around the world. Its repatriation has created a domino effect, where the world’s institutions are seriously considering returning African art to the continent. Perhaps most famous of all of Africa’s ‘lost’ art are the ‘Benin Bronzes’, which include thousands of exquisitely decorated cast brass plaques, and once lined the walls of the Benin Royal Palace.

The bronzes are currently scattered across the world’s museums – the British Museum in the UK holds 928 of them. “1976, probably stolen from the Royal Palace,” runs the description of an altar figure from Benin City, Nigeria, found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Only in 2022 did museums begin to agree to return these objects to Benin City, Nigeria, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Benin, and site of the original palace.

The Beninese government, under President Patrice Talon since 2016, is driving to invest in its country’s culture – a drive with one billion euros behind it.

In 2016 a Beninese newspaper argued that the country didn’t have a place to accommodate any returned treasures, and that somewhere would need to be built. But in the 2020s, Benin is set to open four significant cultural museums, which, if a headline by travel organisation ITB Berlin is anything to go by, may make it ‘Africa’s top destination for art and culture’.

The museums are the International Museum of Memory and Slavery (MIMe) in Ouidah; the Vodun Museum in Porto-Novo; the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Cotonou; and the Museum of the epic of the Amazons and Kings of Dahomey.

The 26 returned works will find a home in the last of these, set to open in Dahomey, in a €50-million project that will also rehabilitate the royal palaces of Behanzin, Guezo, Glele, and Agoli Agbo, that stand on the site.
These museums give a snapshot of the sides of Benin’s cultural heritage that it wants to present to itself – and to the wider world.
Benin’s government is working closely with France, and French experts, to develop these museums so that Benin’s heritage can be housed to international standards, and the museums are being built with help of a French loan. The new institutions will put Benin on the world stage and remind visitors – who often come looking for the ‘other’ when experiencing cultures that might be very different from their own – that Benin might have a hugely important cultural heritage, but it is also looking to be in dialogue with the international gallery scene.
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Benin’s cultural scene

The return of vital cultural heritage will reinvigorate interest in the country and its culture – both for residents, and for visitors.

When Benin’s 26 lost treasures were displayed in Cotonou, they were placed alongside more than 100 contemporary artworks by prominent modern Beninese artists. And in the months that followed, well-known graffiti artists in Cotonou added images of King Behanzin and images of the restored artefacts to the 940-metre-long mural in the city center. The aim is that the mural will eventually be the longest in the world.

Cotonou held Benin’s first international art festival in February 2023. Elsewhere in Cotonou, the Institut Francais holds film screenings, espace Cultural le Parking holds concerts and exhibitions, and you’ll also find Le Yes Papa, a cultural center which hosts heaps of live music.
Benin’s modest but interesting museums currently open to visitors include the Ouidah Museum of History, which gets around 30,000 visitors a year and is part of the ‘slave route’ you can follow through the city. The nearby Zinsou Foundation of African Art houses modern art. Porto-Novo, the capital, has the ethnographic Museum, and the Musee Honme – this is the site of the palace of King Toffa.

These places don’t just give visitors an insight into modern Beninese culture, but also hosts international art. The free Zinsou Foundation has two locations in the country, and has past exhibitions have included American artist Keith Haring in 2016, and Tunisian artist Aicha Snoussi, in 2021.

The Alexandre Senou Adande ethnographic Museum in Porto-Novo holds around 1,280 objects in a small colonial-era mansion in the center of the city. Once a year for World Museums Day, the museum’s famous masks are taken from their display and worn by a Gelede performance group, for a show that attracts a big crowd in the city. It’s hard to imagine the British Museum, which holds eight million objects, devoting the same regular attention to the 441 artefacts and photographs it currently holds from the Republic of Benin, many of which are not on display at all in its galleries.

Room to grow

Yet, in other ways, Benin’s contemporary culture scene is emerging, rather than well-established. There aren’t many places where you’ll find creatives tapping away at laptops in gallery cafes. Whilst Benin is investing in museums, it’s been reported that there is only one commercial cinema in the whole of Benin. It’s in Cotonou, and it’s often showing films from Nollywood – Nigeria’s main film-making hub.

In 2022, the cinema sold out of tickets to the Hollywood film The Woman King. This film told the story of the real-life Agojie, the female warriors who protected the kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s, and was a rare representation of Beninese culture in American film.

Whilst the plot of The Woman King takes place during the Atlantic slave trade, it might be surprising for visitors to learn that schools in West Africa barely cover slavery, even as many other parts of the world work to address and acknowledge their role.

Cultural vacations in Benin

Most international visitors to Benin don’t currently come for contemporary culture. Instead, many tours travel here seeking cultural extremes. Tour guides might highlight points of difference between tourists and local people. Some travelers come to photograph tribal culture, fetish markets, and ritual sacrifice. New museums don’t necessarily fit with a tour of traditional culture; they are perhaps not what visitors want to expect.

Traditional ways of life

Cultural tours of Benin are often organised so that they deliberately visit areas that follow very traditional ways of life. Travelers might stumble upon circumcision ceremonies, long, public funeral processions with mourners garbed in black and red, and visceral rituals featuring animal sacrifice at fetishes. In the side streets of cities like Abomey, voodoo temples abound.

Visitors who come for Ouidah’s annual Voodoo Festival are often overwhelmed by the spontaneous acts of celebration and festivity that crop up across the city. Practitioners fall into trances, in which they convulse and grimace, unrousable, even by fire. There are fire eaters, dancers, and drummers. Increasingly, visitors come from all over the world to watch.

The culture is not here to shock tourists; it is not here for tourists at all. Yet more and more tourists visit, and visit for the shock value. Good cultural tourism should not ‘other’ cultures in this way. It should be, instead, about finding connection. An increasingly large subset of tourists is also visiting the homeland of their ancestors, and do just that.

Finding connections between cultures

“I was excited to be in Togo and Benin where animism and vodoun are widely practised,” said Marguerite, who went on our Ghana, Togo and Benin vacation “Despite my Catholic upbringing, I felt a thin thread of connection, a curiosity about the religion of my ancestors.”

The Taneka villages, which are scattered in the mountainous terrain of north-west Benin, each have their own king – and visitors can be granted an audience. “My husband and I were thrilled that he wanted us to encourage more visitors from Jamaica,” says Marguerite.

Not every Taneka village welcomes visitors. Tourists are usually taken to a particular village that has agreed to host them, called Taneka Koko.

Every Taneka village has a king, and every Taneka village has a fetish priest. These are spiritual leaders who act as intermediaries between the living and the spirit worlds. There is an area of the village where those initiated into the religion live. The fetish priest and village healers might be found, wearing coverings of goat or monkey skin, smoking long pipes made from horn. They are believed to be phenomenally powerful.

“We consult extensively with local tribal elders to ensure that our presence here is very much welcomed,” explains our Benin culture travel partner, Native eye, “We feel that it is very important to be seen as guests here rather than outsiders come to merely look.” A great deal of thought goes into how to show the culture of the country in a way that demystifies its traditions without being reductive. Respect is paramount. Rather than tourists and Beninese people being caught in a standoff either side of a camera, our partners work hard to create a host and guest dynamic.

A good cultural vacation in Benin should strive to break the paradigms of photographer and subject, observer and observed. “Recognise that the culture of the people you visit has as much validity as yours,” says Marguerite.

Coming as a guest – as Marguerite did – gets you closer to understanding the culture, simply because you are living it. “The experience was intense because we were so close to the local people and their day-to-day activities,” says Marguerite.

Cultural exchange

Responsible tour operators are working hard to make sure cultural exchange is enjoyable for everyone and goes beyond just money changing hands. “Our philosophy is to have a limited amount of trips – usually between one and three a year for each of our itineraries,” – that’s the ethos our partner, Undiscovered Destinations. “By limiting our presence in areas where local culture can be quite fragile,” they write, “we hope to avoid as much as possible the phenomenon whereby an area changes in character due to repeated and prolonged exposure to tourism”.

Cities, on the other hand, are well set up and would welcome additional visitors, as too would Benin’s upcoming galleries – at least for now. Benin wants to increase its number of cultural visitors and show them what contemporary Beninese culture can look like. In the future, perhaps, visitors will not need to tread so carefully to preserve a ‘vanishing’ culture, but will instead be seduced by a cultural tour de force.

And you won’t have to travel to Benin to get a taste. In 2024, Azu Nwagbogu will curate Benin’s debut entry into the Venice Biennale. It’s the first time the country has had a pavilion at the world-renowned art exhibition in the show’s illustrious 129-year history. Just as Benin restores its treasures, it sends art out again – the makings of a new cultural powerhouse, indeed.

Quick facts about culture in Benin

Benin is set to open four major museums in the 2020s, having put aside significant funds to preserve and highlight its culture, and attract cultural tourism. It’s helpful to know French – the country’s official language, which features on signage: it’s Fete du Vodoun and Temple des Pythons, not Voodoo Festival and Temple of Pythons. ‘Fetish’ means an object possessed with supernatural powers. Lots of tours stop on the road north beyond Abomey at the Dankoli fetish, the most powerful in the country. A ‘fetish priest’ is a priest who can be possessed by a god. Markets are found everywhere in Benin. The largest market in west Africa, Dantokpa Marche in Cotonou, seemingly sells everything – electronics, car parts, phones, food. For local people, it’s a superstore of essentials. Tourists may want to go to see – and barter for – the wax print textiles, and the handicrafts. That is, if you can find them. Among Benin’s many markets, of particular interest to visitors are the fetish markets. These wet markets have animals for sale – both alive: goats, chickens, sometimes cats and dogs, for sacrifice, and dead; animal parts often feature in grigri (protective talisman). The most popular fetish market for visitors is just outside Abomey. Gelede, performed by the Yoruba-Nago ethnic group, is an UNeSCO-listed ceremony which sits on the intangible cultural heritage list. Performers dressed in elaborate costumes dance in the street as part of the ceremony, which takes place at night during important times – such as harvest – and celebrates the primordial mother, and the role of women in society. The wooden masks which are used in performances are fantastic, sculpted objects. Hollywood’s 2022 film The Woman King, about the Agojie was a hit in Benin. These female warriors protected the kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. The history of the slave trade, which is depicted in the film, is still not extensively taught in West African schools. The Benin Bronzes are not from modern-day Benin but from Nigeria, where the Kingdom of Benin ruled from the 13th to 19th century from Benin City.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ji-Elle] [Intro: Adoscam] [Ouidah Museum of History: Kulttuurinavigaattori] [Traditional ways of life: Daniel Greenberg]