Review of Dahomey: An Inquiry into the Plundered African Art Pieces

Estimated read time 3 min read


Mati Diop, an actor and filmmaker from Senegal and France, made history in 2019 when her movie Atlantique was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival, making her the first woman of color to achieve this feat. She now presents a thought-provoking 67-minute documentary at the Berlin Film Festival, exploring colonialism, culture, and the connection between the past and present. Titled Dahomey, the film delves into the return of stolen treasures from France to Benin in 2021. These treasures were taken by French troops in 1892 and include zoomorphic figures depicting King Ghezo and his heirs Glele and Béhanzin, who ruled the region known as Dahomey from 1797 to 1818. These figures are portrayed with the heads of a bird, lion, or shark, symbolizing their supernatural abilities. The British also have their own collection of stolen goods, known as the Benin bronzes, which originated from the city of Benin in modern-day Nigeria. Some of these items have also been returned.

The story of Dahomey is told from the perspective of a stolen object, and Ghezo’s voice, which is distorted and detached, reflects on his years of suffering and confinement. A few scenes depict the process of museum attendants carefully packing and unpacking the artefacts, with one tense moment where they remind each other to handle the statue properly. It is easy to envision a documentary by Frederick Wiseman that would be much longer and solely consist of these types of scenes.

However, the movie truly shines during the discussions on the return of artefacts on the college campus, reminiscent of the lively spirit of the Godardian era in the 1960s. The students are passionate, eloquent, and often brilliant; several bring up the fact that only 26 out of thousands of items have been returned, which is seen as a form of disrespect. On the other hand, some argue that this is a narrow-minded perspective and that it is important to maintain a diplomatic dialogue between France and Benin.

A different individual remarks that a similar reparation is occurring simultaneously with the diaspora descendants of Benin residing in Europe and the US who are contemplating their return to their homeland. Some argue that the true essence and significance of Benin lies not in these physical artifacts and their current location, but rather in the thoughts and creations of the Beninese people at present. This thought-provoking film has significant implications for the Elgin/Parthenon marbles currently housed in the British Museum.


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