To Protest Colonialism, This Congolese Activist Takes Artifacts From Paris Museums

Mwazulu Diyabanza will appear in a Paris court this month after he tried to ‘steal’ an African treasure he says was looted from Africa. It would seam that France and its attitude to it’s colonial past will be on trial, too.

Early one afternoonin Paris in June, the Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza walked into the Quai Branly Museum, the riverfront institution that houses treasures from France’s former colonies, and bought a ticket. With four associates, he wandered around the museum’s African collections. Yet what started as a standard museum outing soon escalated into a demonstration as Mr. Diyabanza began denouncing colonial-era cultural theft while a member of his group filmed the speech and live-streamed it via a social media network. With another group member’s help, he then forcefully removed a slender 19th-century wooden funerary post, from a region that is now in Chad or Sudan, and headed for the exit. The Paris museum guards stopped him.

The next month, in the southern French city of Marseille, Mr. Diyabanza seized an artifact from the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in another live-streamed protest, before being halted by security. And earlier this month, in a third action that was also broadcast on social media, he and other activists took a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands, before guards stopped him again.

Now, Mr. Diyabanza, the spokesman for a Pan-African movement that seeks reparations for colonialism, slavery and cultural expropriation, is set to stand trial in Paris. Along with the four associates from the Quai Branly action, he will face a charge of attempted theft, in a case that is also likely to put France on the stand for its colonial track record and for holding so much of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage over 90,000 objects in its museums.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged in 2017 to give back much of Africa’s heritage held by France’s museums, and commissioned two academics to draw up a report on how to do it.

The 2018 report, by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, said any artifacts removed from sub-Saharan Africa in colonial times should be permanently returned if they were “taken by force, or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions,” and if their countries of origin asked for them.

Only 27 restitutions have been announced so far, and just one object has been returned.

The Quai Branly funerary post, according to its museum label, was a gift from a French doctor and explorer who went on ethnological missions around Africa. But to Mr. Diyabanza and his associates, the museum’s contents are all the products of expropriation. As he said in the live-streamed speech before seizing the item, he had “come to claim back the stolen property of Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism.”

Mr. Diyabanza, who faces a separate trial in Marseille in November, said in the interview that fury had led him to remove the object in a spontaneous and unpremeditated act, and that he had chosen the post because it was “easily accessible” and not bolted in place.

“Anywhere that our artworks and heritage are locked up, we will go and get them,” he added.

Source: New York Times

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