Bénédicte Savoy: Let’s talk about Institutional Lies

A question that the GROUP 50:50 and Studio Rizoma asked me – or gave me as a sort of homework – before I came was: What remains to be done now that the restitution has been decided and launched and what is the specific role of artists in this process? What networks should we set up, what practices should we adapt, so that the restitution of cultural property can radically transform relations between Europe and Africa? This question is wether easy nor comfortable for me to give an answer to because I am an academic, I work with archives. I think artists and collectives like the GROUP 50:50 are probably more capable of giving this answer. But I will try my best, like a good student.

In 2018 when we discussed restitution in Cotonou with the former minister of culture of Benin, Oswald Homeky, he said: “I do not believe in these restitutions but if they happen one day it will be like the fall of the wall of Berlin or the reunion of the two Coreas”. Today for African heritage in the world, we can say: “The wall has fallen”. A large gap has opened in this wall and some countries like Benin and some cities like Cotonou or Porto-Novo or Ouidah are already largely committed to the future. For me, personally, it is not a matter of demolishing the rest of the wall with a little hammer. It is important to demolish the rest.
But I think it is not my job. I have contributed to the gap. And now I find it very important to observe those who now, on the African continent and in the Diasporas, in Dakar, Lubumbashi, Akkra, Lagos, Douala, Cotonou, or here in Palermo are working to reconnect and resocialize objects with their societies of origin and their societies of today and tomorrow. There is no more beautiful project.

In numbers only 26 objects came back to Cotonou – But this means 2,5 tons of cultural heritage from Abomey. One of the most beautiful an symbolically most important moments is the real restitution. Not talking about restitution like in Belgium or Germany but the actual return of important objects to an African country. Nobody would have believed that the small republic of Benin would be the first to recover these objects. For me it was very impressive to see, how cautiously people were unloading the objects from the truck, so slowly, like a birth. Or a rebirth. Until February there is a huge exhibition one part of which are these restituted historical objects. It is quite didactic but you can see children speaking with their parents and grand parents about the meaning of royal doors that have been plundered by the French. And it is interesting to see, how the conversation is triangular.

They are speaking about the objects with their parents. This is the future. This is why we are doing these restitutions. Another room of the exhibition presents contemporary art from Benin. There are fotos where you see traditional kings looking at afrofuturistic artwork. And these temporalities – little children seeing the historical heritage and old men seeing the future of creativity – is exactly something that we could have imagined. And that is one of my answers to your question. I think we should be open to what is to come. The most important thing for all of us is to let go and to observe what will happen. And these things are unwritten, they are unpredictable, we cannot know. And that is the good news. We don’t know what it will become, that is why we do it.

Credits: Statues du palais royal d’Abomey (musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris), Jean-Pierre Dalbéra