To protest colonialism, Congolese activist removes artifacts from museums

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PARIS – Early one June afternoon, Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza visited the Quai Branly Museum, which holds treasures from France’s former colonies. Accompanied by four people, he walked through the African collections of the Parisian museum, admiring the exposed treasures. But what started out as a regular visit soon turned into a noisy demonstration, when Diyabanza started denouncing the cultural theft of the colonial era, while one of his colleagues filmed the speech and broadcast it live via Facebook. With the help of another member of the group, he took a funerary piece of wood from the 19th century, from a region that is now in Chad or Sudan, and headed for the exit. The museum guards stopped him before he could leave.

The following month, in the city of Marseille, in the south of France, Diyabanza took an artifact from the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in another protest broadcast live, before being interrupted by security. And earlier this month, in a third action also broadcast on Facebook, he and other activists took a Congolese funerary statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands, before the guards stopped him again.

‘Museum of stolen objects’

Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza Photo: ELLIOTT VERDIER / NYT

Now Diyabanza, the spokesman for a pan-African movement seeking redress for colonialism, slavery and cultural expropriation, is due to stand trial in Paris on September 30. Together with the four associates of Quai Branly’s action, he will face a charge of attempted theft, in a case that is likely to call into question France’s colonial history and its sub-Saharan African cultural heritage present in its museums – about 90,000 objects .

“The fact that I had to pay to see something that was forcibly taken, an inheritance that belonged to where I came from, is what made me decide to act,” said Diyabanza, in an interview in Paris this month.

Describing Quai Branly as “a museum of stolen objects”, he adds:

– Nothing prevents someone from taking back a property that was yours when you find it.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged in 2017 to return much of Africa’s heritage maintained by French museums. To this end, he commissioned two academics to report on the best way to carry out this plan.

The 2018 report, by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, proposes that any artifacts removed from Sub-Saharan Africa in colonial times should be returned permanently if they have been “taken by force, or presumably acquired under unfair conditions”, and if their countries of origin request for them. Only 27 refunds have been announced so far, and only one item has been returned.

The funerary piece by Quai Branly, according to the museum’s description, was a gift from a French doctor and explorer who carried out ethnological missions in Africa. But for Diyabanza and his associates, the museum’s contents are all products of expropriation. As he said in the speech broadcast live before seizing the item, he “came to claim back the stolen property from Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism.”

Another case

Diyabanza will also face a separate trial in Marseille in November. In the interview, he says that fury led him to remove the object in a spontaneous and unintended act, and that he chose the funerary piece because it was “easily accessible” and not screwed on.

– Wherever our works of art and heritage are locked, we will pick them up – he says.

Diyabanza is not alone in this type of action. On Friday, a London court found Isaiah Ogundele, 34, guilty of a harassment charge in a protest at a slavery-related gallery in the London Museum. According to a statement from the museum, the demonstration took place in January, in front of four African works loaned by the British Museum.

The concern among museum administrators is that such actions will multiply, wreak havoc inside museums and hinder restitution negotiations between Europe and Africa.

Role reversal

Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archeology and curator at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, describes Diyabanza’s intervention at Quai Branly as “a visual protest” tailored to social media. He points out that the case brings about a reversal of roles: a cultural object was being apprehended in Europe on behalf of people in Africa.

For Hicks, the episode deals with “objects in museums and how we feel about them” and raises questions about “culture, race, historical violence, history and memory”.

– When it gets to the point where our audience feels the need to protest, we are probably doing something wrong – he says. – We need to open ourselves to dialogue when our exhibitions offend or annoy people.

The funerary piece was not on display on a recent visit to Quai Branly. A museum spokesman declined to answer questions about its condition and location, but a guard said it was being restored.

Quai Branly’s spokesman strongly condemned the June action. In court, Diyabanza and his four associates will be defended by three lawyers.

“We are going to put slavery and colonialism on trial on September 30,” says one of the lawyers, Calvin Job. – We are ahead of a legitimate battle against unfair accusations.

The French state has “objects in its collections that are the product of theft,” adds Job.

– If there is a thief in this case, he is not among us, but on the other side.

Hakim Chergui, another of the lawyers, says Diyabanza’s action should not be seen as an attempted theft, but as a political statement. He is confident that the defendants will be acquitted, arguing that France does not prosecute people for political reasons.

– We are not talking about a bunch of con artists who wanted to steal a statue to resell it – he says. – They are clearly people who have a political message and who, through a militant act, want to engage with public opinion.

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