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Congolese activist on trial for trying to return looted art

Gaby Reucher
October 2, 2020

Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza has tried to remove looted art from museums in protest against the theft of African art treasures. Now he is facing trial.

The trial began on September 30 in Paris
Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza speaking to the mediaImage: Thibault Camus/AP/picture alliance

In the summer, Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza made headlines when he and four other activists tried to carry a totem pole out of the Quai Branly Museum of non-European art in Paris.

The men were protesting against the handling of looted art from the colonial era. Diyabanza said governments have not followed up on their promises to return looted art from the colonial era. He filmed his protest and posted the video on social networks.

"We're taking it home" he announced in his video message.

Now the five activists are on trial in Paris. Diyabanza might also face trials in other cities where he tried to walk out of museums with looted artworks.

Read more: Documentary "The stolen soul - looted art from Africa"

Diyabanza's 'recovery operation'

In the run-up to the trial, Diyabanza told the AFP news agency that the step was justified even if it was risky: "We had no intention of stealing this work, but we will continue as long as the injustice of pillaging Africa has not been remedied," he said.

Diyabanza's protest "was not surprising because such scenarios have been described in film and literature since the 1960s," said French art historian Benedicte Savoy, who has for years dealt with the topic of looted art from the colonial era.

It is the focus of Ryan Coogler's 2018 superhero movie "Black Panther," and even back in the 1970s, it was an issue for Literature Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka.

"It is a topic in literature, and Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza is the first to put into practice something has long existed in the imagination," Savoy argued.

Three small African statues
France plans to return these statues to Benin among thousands of others - but is it too little, too late?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Glaubitz

Looted art in leading museums

In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr to conduct extensive research into colonial art. According to their report, about 85 - 90% of African artworks and objects were located outside the African continent — with the world's leading museums displaying African sculptures, masks, burial objects, jewelry and ritual objects.

The French national collections alone have 90,000 African objects, 70,000 of which are to be found in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

Read more: Colonial art restitution: 'The desire is not to wipe museums clean'

France wants to return looted art

Speaking to students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Macron announced a large part of these objects would eventually be returned to the former colonial states during his term in office.

Benedicte Savoy
Benedicte Savoy, art historian at Berlin's Technical UniversityImage: DW/P. Kouparanis

"That's what he said to 20-year-old students more than two years ago," Savoy told Deutsche Welle. "For young people, two years of waiting is a long time; for those who have been demanding the return of their cultural assets since independence, it's a lifetime."

At a time when the world is closely watching the protests in the US against racism and symbols of colonialism, Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza's protests receive heightened attention, Savoy said. 

With the Black Lives Matter movement toppling colonial monuments and directing attention to racist symbols, there is growing awareness about these issues, which is also evident by the great interest in the court hearing.

Savoy: 'The people don't feel they are being treated well"

"The African diaspora is a large part of French society where people feel they are not being treated well," said Savoy, adding that the matter must be handled with care in court.

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza embodies the desire to highlight the kind of issues this diaspora face. He often wears a black beret in homage to the 1960s Black Panthers movement in the US. He also wears a map of Africa around his neck during his protests.

Born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Diyabanza lived in the French city of Champigny-sur-Marne, the Parisian suburbs as well as in Lome in Togo. In 2014, he founded the Movement for Unity, Dignity and Courage (UDC) that among other goals works for the return of artifacts.

Read more: Colonial art: The case of a piece stolen from Cameroon

Diyabanza faces 10 years in prison

Diyabanza is charged with attempted joint theft of a cultural asset. The five activists he worked with face up to ten years in prison and a fine of €150,000 ($176,000) each.

On June 30, Diyabanza filed a complaint against the French state for "theft and concealment" with regard to the stolen colonial art. On July 30, he was arrested in Marseille after "confiscating" an ivory object at the Museum of African, Oceanic and Indian Art.

Two weeks ago he walked out of a Dutch museum with a Congolese tomb sculpture but was stopped by police.

Missed opportunities

We live in a time when "people deal with each other head-on, they are violent, they don't talk — this is new," Savoy said. Racism is increasingly unbearable for those affected, she added. Savoy highlighted that she remembered reading an article from the 1970s that urged the return the cultural assets "before people get frustrated, as a friendly gesture."

French President Macron
French President Macron has pledged to return the majority of African artworksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ahmed Ouoba

European governments have clearly missed that opportunity. Three years ago, people were still being told the items in the ethnological museums were purchased legally, and that there was no colonialism in Germany," Savoy said. Now a frustrated younger generation had to figure out for themselves where the objects actually came from, she said.

Read more: German museums 'willing to return' looted colonial objects

'Theft is never forgotten'

Critics accuse the French state of not having done enough. Sacred statues from Nigeria were auctioned off, for instance, even though Nigeria had asked the French government to stop selling them.

People don't forget when something has been taken from them, art historian Savoy said, pointing out the Nazis' art theft and Napoleon's looting. "You always want to get them back, and that often ends in violence."

Protesters on the street walking behind a large banner
Like many cities, the French coastal city of Marseille also saw protests this summer against police violence and racism Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Cole

Nevertheless, Savoy believes the problem can still be solved, provided people are prepared to talk openly about it — not just in Europe, but also with artists, writers, cultural sponsors and institutions in Africa.

"It is not a question of whether the works entered the museums legally or illegally," she said. "It is a question of working out a common future. There can only be peace if we are really prepared to talk."

This text has been adapted from German by Dagmar Breitenbach