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October 22, 2020

Thursday, October 22, 2020 - No comments

The sentencing of Congolese Activists Reignites the Sensitive Conversation of Colonial-Era Art Restitution

On June 13th Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and a group of activists from the group Unité, dignité et courage (UDC) entered the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris and after a brief stroll through the museum's galleries began a demonstration in the African art section where Diyabanza began by making a live-streamed speech denouncing colonial-era injustice and cultural theft. 

The demonstration then crossed the lines of legality when the Congo-born activist and another member of the group forcefully removed a 19th-century Chadian funerary pole from its display, which the activists have argued was originally stolen from Africa by French colonisers.  They then proceeded to carry the artefact through the museum while Diyabanza continued his speech on plundered African art. 

The activists were stopped before they could leave the museum, but charges were pressed for attempted theft of a registered artwork and the activists risked potential penalties of up to10 years in prison and a maximum of €150,000 in fines.

Screen Capture from a video of the activist Diyabanza, who has carried out similar actions in the museums of Marseille and Berg en Dal in the Netherlands. 
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The charges filed for the Paris incident did not stop the group from conducting other protests in other museums known to contain colonial works.  On July 30th the group entered the Musée Colonial de Marseille founded by Dr. Édouard Marie Heckel and removed an ivory artifact, repeating their march through the museum while live recording on Facebook, resulting in the group being arrested outside the museum.  

The third demonstration occurred in Holland at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal on September 10th during which Diyabanza took a Congolese funerary statue from its’ stand and marched the statue out of the museum. The museum staff did not interfere with the demonstration in order to prevent any possible damage to the statue and allowed the group to leave the museum knowing that the police were waiting outside to apprehend the protestors.  The statue was subsequently safely returned to the museum.  

Screen Captures from the video of the demonstration
at the Afrika Museum In Holland
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The director of the Dutch museum spoke out against the group's claims for restitution saying, "these people claim the statue is theirs, but who are they themselves?"  The director went on to say that the museum has received and accepted formal requests for art to be returned in the past and stated "that is the normal way. Or through a government, but at the moment we have no claim whatsoever from the governments of Congo, Angola, or other African countries."  

The group faced trial in Paris early in October with tension high in the air and activist groups denied entry to the courthouse.  Diyabanza has defended his unorthodox form of protest, speaking of the artifacts,it is part of our history and of the inheritance our forefathers left us. This was not supposed to be on display here. We are not thieves who came to steal something. You don’t ask permission to take back what was taken from you, now do you?”  

Accused of “attempted theft” Diyabanza was fined €1,000 in the French Court for attempting to seize a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Initially accused of attempted theft, he was convicted of aggravated theft, after describing his actions as a protest against colonial looting, not a theft, knowing he would be stopped.

Three other activists involved the French museum protest were given suspended fines of between €250-€1000 euro while a fifth activist was acquitted.   In meting out the sentences the judge hoped the fines would discourage similar actions informing the group that "you have other ways of drawing the attention of politicians and the public".  The group will also face trial in Marseille, France in November as well as in the Netherlands.

Authors of the 2018 report: Felwine Sarr (left) and Bénédicte Savoy (right)
Image Credit Alain Jocard

The topic of restitution of artwork acquired through colonialism has been discussed in France prior to these dramatic demonstrations.  In 2018 a report was commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in order to assess and propose solutions for the restitution of pieces of African cultural heritage.  The report, entitled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.  Toward a New Relational Ethics”, details a three-step process on how best to move forward with restitution of objects obtained in an unethical manner.  Listed below is the report's recommendation for how to assess an objects’ eligibility for restitution:

Criteria for Restitutability 

The massive and continuous integration—over the past 150 years—of cultural heritage material from Africa into French collections leads us to a response in terms of the following schema in regard to the demands for restitutions coming from Africa: 

1. Restitution in a swift and thorough manner without any supplementary research regarding their provenance or origins, of any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions: 
     A. through military aggressions (spoils, trophies), whether these pieces went on directly to France or whether passed through the international art market before then finding their way to being integrated into collections. 
     B. by way of military personnel or active administrators on the continent during the colonial period (1885-1960) or by their descendants. 
     C. through scientific expeditions prior to 1960. D. certain museums continue to house pieces of African origin which were initially loaned out to them by African institutions for exhibits or campaigns of restoration, but which were never given back. These objects should be swiftly returned to their institutions of origin. 

2. Complementary Research for pieces that entered into the museums after 1960 and those received as gifts or donations to the museum where we have a good reason to believe the pieces left African soil before 1960 (but which remained within families for several generations). In cases where research is not able to ascertain the initial circumstances around their acquisition during the colonial period, the pieces requested can be restituted based on justification of their interest by the country making the request. 

3. Preservation within the French collections of pieces of African art objects and cultural heritage where the following has been established:
     A. After confirmation that a freely consented to and documented transaction took place that was agreed upon and equitable. 
     B. That the pieces acquired conformed to the necessary rigor and careful monitoring of the apparatus in place on the art market after the application of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, in other words, without “taking any ethical risks”. Gifts from foreign Heads of State to French governments remain as acquisitions for France except in cases where the heads of state concerned have been ruled against for the misuse of public funds.”

The report identifies over 90,000 known pieces of African art in France, with 70,000 of them in the Quai Branly museum.  The report also gives a list of items that were recommended for an expedited restitution which should have occurred during the first phase of their recommended plan, which they state should have happened between November 2018-2019.  While 27 restitutions have been announced only one object has been returned, a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century spiritual leader, and military commander was returned to Senegal on 17 November 2019. 

President Macky Sall of Senegal (right) received the sword of Omar Saidou Tall during a ceremony in Dakar
Image Credit: Seyllou/Agence France-Presse

The slow action of the French government regarding these restitutions has frustrated the authors of the report, with an estimate of 90-95% of African art being held in museums and institutions across the world Ms. Savoy has called it a “scandalous imbalance”.  The report ended with a poem by African poet Niyi Osundare, Africa’s Memory, stating that “It is at the heart of the subject that concerns us: the unequal distribution of African cultural heritage around the world, of its beautiful presence in Western museums, the gaps in memory as a result of its absence in Africa, and the responsibility of each and every one of us to assure the establishment of equity.”

I ask for Oluyenyetuye bronze of Ife
The moon says it is in Bonn
I ask for Ogidigbonyingbonyin mask of Benin
The moon says it is in London
I ask for Dinkowawa stool of Ashanti
The moon says it is in Paris
I ask for Togongorewa bust of Zimbabwe
The moon says it is in New York
I ask
I ask
I ask for the memory of Africa
The seasons say it is blowing in the wind
The hunchback cannot hide his burden

By: Lynette Turnblom


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BBC News. 2020. “France Fines Congo Activist for Seizing Paris Museum Artefact,” October 14, 2020, sec. Europe. Diyabanza, Mwazulu. 2020a. 

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_____2020b. “En Direct du Musée Colobial de Marseille MAAOA, Récupération de Notre Patrimoine Culturel.” Facebook. August 1, 2020. ———. 

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Savor, Benedicte, and Felwine Sarr. 2018. “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” November 2018.