top of page
05.Expo Béhanzin.JPG

From one view to another: the Royal Treasure of Abomey


December 2006. The Musée du Quai Branly opened its doors six months ago, and its first partnership with a country from which its collections originate is highly symbolic: an exhibition at the Fondation Zinsou celebrating, in Benin, the centenary of the death of King Behanzin. 

The thirteenth ruler of the Danhomé royal dynasty, this man whose motto was "the angry shark comes to disturb the helm" was one of the leading figures of African resistance against colonial imperialism. His forced exile to Martinique was as widely publicized as the four years of his reign (1890-1894), devoted to protecting his kingdom against the expansionist aims of the French colonial empire. 

As Béhanzin became a legend, French public collections recorded their first works from the Royal Treasure of Abomey. For decades, they were presented as ethnographic objects at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro - renamed the Musée de l'Homme in 1938. In the Salle d'Afrique noire, the "royal fetishes" illustrated the display case entitled "Dahomey / Fon / religion", while the sculpted doors of King Glèlè's tomb were only indicated as "Portes sculptées d'Abomey. Dahomey. Gift of General Dodds". 

At the Fondation Zinsou, the Behanzin, roi d'Abomey exhibition and accompanying catalog would henceforth place the thirty works from the Royal Treasure on loan from France under the gaze of history. Alongside archive documents chronicling the conquest of this kingdom, long courted by Europeans, and the resistance, exile and death of Behanzin, the works showcased another dimension of history: that of a kingdom born in the 17th century, whose dynastic power was based as much on hereditary continuity as on the permanence of institutions and their supports.


The royal collections, carefully preserved in the Treasure Room, were paraded around the city in an annual procession. Regalia and applied arts exalted power through historicized imagery symbolizing each sovereign. Ornate swords celebrated the invincibility of the Amazons, and instruments of worship celebrated the protective forces called upon by priests and soothsayers. The exhibition featured two thrones (embodying the very essence of royal power) by Béhanzin, taken by General Dodds during the capture of the royal palaces of Abomey: the first entered French collections in 1895, the second acquired in Paris in 2004 by Lionel Zinsou to be brought back to Benin. While the joint exhibition at the Musée Historique d'Abomey recalled the continuity of the kingdom's founding institutions, the Cotonou presentation of the two thrones revealed the still sacred dimension, in the eyes of the Beninese public, of this emblematic heritage.


Commissioned by the Fondation Zinsou from Cyprien Tokoudagba - descendant of a dynasty of Abomey court artists - fifteen canvases depicting various emblems of Behanzin punctuated the exhibition. As well as offering a contemporary perspective on the works of the past, whose beauty was enhanced by the presentation, this confrontation had an engaging perspective: the entry of Abomey's works and artists into art history. 

In autumn 2009, the Musée du Quai Branly, with the support of the Zinsou family, presented the exhibition Artists of Abomey, celebrating their talent and the prodigious artistic emulation orchestrated over three centuries by the rulers of Abomey. With Behanzin, King of Abomey, works of art from the kingdom of Abomey were freed from their status as ethnographic testimonies and elevated to the status of historical objects and works of art, thereby restoring their part of the sacred.

Marguerite de Sabran

(excerpt from the Fondation Zinsou 10-Year Book)

Download "Béhanzin, correspondence and speeches"
by clicking on the icon

bottom of page