Last month, an extraordinary exhibition opened in Paris. Entitled "Benin--Five Centuries of Royal Art and running until January 2008, it gathers together some of the finest antiquities originating from the City of Benin. It has also awakened the debate surrounding the European plunder of Africa's heritage. Stephen Williams reports.
Described as the most important exhibition of African arts to have been mounted in many years, Benin--Five Centuries of Royal Art draws together 280 priceless artefacts from the collections of the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Vienna, the Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museum in Berlin, the British Museum in London, and loans from the current Royal House of Benin as well as the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.
This seminal exhibition illustrates the culture and history of one of Africa's greatest empires through the bronzes, ivory sculptures and other items, including maps, manuscripts, and travel journals on display.
Hosting this extraordinary exhibition is the Musee du Quai Branly. Nestled alongside the River Seine that runs through Paris, and in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the Musee du Quai Branly has been described as the "presidential legacy" of the former French president, Jacques Chirac.
The idea of French presidents sponsoring architectural "grands projets" is not new. The late Presidents Georges Pompidou and Francois Mitterand both left their imprints--the former the Pompidou Centre which exhibits contemporary arts, the later the Arche de La Defense and also the Louvre Pyramid.
It has been rumoured that the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is already contemplating his legacy--creating the world's largest sculpture park on the site of a disused Renault factory on Ile Seguin, an island in the River Seine less than five kilometres west of the Musee du Quai Branly.
But Chirac's choice of project reflected his own interests. He is one of the world's foremost collectors of what are termed 'ethnological' artefacts (principally from the developing world) and asked the French architect, Jean Nouvel, to design the Musee du Quai Branly to house the nation's collection of ethnological treasures. It opened in June 2006.
As the museum's own catalogue points out, the royal treasures of Benin occupy a hugely important place in the whole spectrum of sub-Saharan African arts. France has never before exhibited this number and variety of treasures from the City of Benin, and the French public and many visitors to the French capital have flocked to see it since the exhibition opened last month.
The Benin Empire, which was located in southwest Nigeria (and not to be confused with the modern nation state called Benin, formerly Dahomey), has long been recognised for the importance of the exquisite bronze casts and ivory sculptures it produced between the 16th and 19th centuries. They are, quite simply, some of humanity's most precious historical treasures--making the debate over their controversial provenance an even more vital issue.
Understanding the historical context of this exhibition helps bring the priceless artefacts to life. The Benin Empire, an important element of the greater Yoruba dynasty, was already a powerful entity before developing a flourishing trade with the Portuguese, following the arrival of the mariner, Afonso d'Aveiro, in 1486, the first known European visitor to Benin City.
As a result of this contact, the focus of Benin's commerce shifted away from trans-Sahara routes to European trade via the Gulf of Guinea coast. Within a century, peppers from Benin were found in the "seasoned" dishes served in wealthy European homes.
Magnificent ivory salt cellars, carved by Benin's court artisans, were also prized by the European nobility. And soap from Benin City was also highly sought after, so much so that a ban was placed on its import in the 16th century to protect Portugal's own soap industry. …