Priceless treasures stolen by the French army over a century ago have finally been returned to the African nation. Our writer joins the emotional celebrations

At first glance, it seems to be just another day in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. Motorbike-taxis are everywhere, filling the streets of the country’s economic capital with dust and noise. But inside the swanky presidential palace, something seismic is talking place: over a century after they were looted by the French army, 26 treasures that once belonged to the nation have gone on display to the public.

Art of Benin Yesterday and Today is more than just a stunning show of these ancient works, though. It segues from the looted 19th-century artefacts to work by 34 of the country’s contemporary artists. “This is a form of regained dignity,” says local art historian Didier Houénoudé, “and the culmination of a long fight started by African countries shortly before independence.”

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