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African activists try to return of colonial-era artworks

Torsten Landsberg
October 16, 2020

A group of Africans tried to take a colonial cultural object from a French museum in the summer. Is such an act of activism a way of putting pressure on politics to return exhibits?

Looted artworks from Bening
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

A group of men bought tickets for the Quai Branly Museum of Non-European Art in Paris, entered the museum and tried to leave again carrying a 19th century African wooden totem pole. At the exit, they were stopped by a security guard. Four months later, on October 14, 2020, a Parisian court fined the men for attempted theft.

However, the incident was hardly an art theft gone wrong, in which case the court would have most likely imposed a much more hefty fine than the €1,000 ($ 1,170) slapped on the men; if this had been an ordinary theft, they would have faced a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a €150,000 fine.

Mwazulu Diyabanza in court
Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza speaking to the media at the start of the trialImage: Thibault Camus/AP/picture alliance

Also, the alleged thieves would hardly have posted their attempt live on the internet, along with a lecture by the group's leader Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza on art stolen from Africa.

After the Paris trial, Diyabanza, who comes from the DR Congo, urged "the black, African and pan-African diaspora" to form a cultural shield to liberate the "cultural, economic and social heritage locked up in the West."

Read more: Black activists arrested after stealing Congolese statue from Dutch museum

Campaign to raise public awareness

The men had planned to return the totem pole to its country of origin, Chad. Regardless of whether their actions amounted to a crime, an act of civil disobedience or political activism, they were effective: The stunt caused a worldwide sensation and infused the debate on how Europe should deal with its colonial past in Africa with much-needed attention.

University of Hamburg African history professor Jürgen Zimmerer described the former colonial powers' — and that includes Germany and France — declared intentions to return looted art and cultural assets to their African countries of origin as a somewhat halfhearted attempt. There is "enough money to research insignificant collections but the colonial looted objects that have already been identified are not restituted," Zimmerer told DW.

He pointed out an upcoming exhibition of controversial Benin bronzes from present-day Nigeria at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Once the show opens, the artworks' fate in Berlin will practically be sealed, said Zimmerer, who also heads a research center that focuses on Hamburg's (post-)Colonial heritage. 

"If only a single bronze is exhibited without first making an adequate art-political arrangement for the future, the Humboldt Forum will become a palace of looted art," he warned.

Photo of three bronzes in an exhibition
These bronzes from Benin have not yet been returnedImage: Michaela Hille

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

Pointing a finger at political failure

Are spectacular operations like the one Diyabanza staged in Paris the only way to raise public awareness and put pressure on political leaders to act? Are they perhaps becoming a similar spectacle like the international "Fridays For Future" (FFF) climate change protests, drawing attention to an ignored issue in the public eye?

"Activism like FFF's is a deeply democratic act," said Zimmerer, adding that their actions highlight the failure of politics in this area. 

"The same applies to the Decolonial movement — given politicians' stonewalling, it is an important form of expression." Zimmerer added that the issue is not only about the restitution of looted objects but also about the decolonization of public areas.

"Decolonize Berlin" is one of many regional initiatives aiming to get streets and squares that are associated with the country's colonial past renamed — but without great success thus far. 
"Even in Germany, where the government has been aiming to reappraise the colonial legacy since 2018, the situation is not very bright," Zimmerer said.

Photo of sign Mohrenstrasse at entrance to Berlin subway station
Several Berlin subway station and street names remain controversialImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/S. Kanz

Condescending attitude

Critics slam the restitution debate as condescending on the part of Western governments and museums, whose arguments, they say, imply that African countries in particular are not capable of  handling the art exhibits adequately with respect to technology, humidity and temperature requirements as well as expertise. 

The implications are that these art treasures are better off in Western, so-called civilized societies. That, critics say, is ultimately a continuation of colonialism by other means.

To counter that impression, the German government and federal states met this week to discuss a new strategy for the registration and digital publication of colonial collections. This would include central access to already digitally recorded artworks as well as a basic digital record and the online publication of "relevant holdings." Select institutions and scientific collections will now be testing the new measures.

Photo of 2 bronze sculptures
There is growing criticism about colonial-era objects like these being housed in Western museumsImage: WDR

No commitment for the future

Jürgen Zimmerer, who helped develop the German Museum Association guidelines on how to deal with collections from colonial contexts, argues the measures do not go far enough, calling instead for a general restitution law in Germany. In a tweet, he highlighted that further-reaching measures needed to be taken.

Instead of access to holdings prepared for the public, he urged "the immediate opening of all museum archives and free access to the documents."He also urged the introduction of clear regulations on how to handle looted objects, including a codified commitment to return them.

That would leave only the modalities to be clarified in individual cases, he told DW. 
Zimmerer also said art objects could remain in German museums, but only under the condition that the owners make that decision. "Looted objects must not be subject to political horse-trading," he said.

Meanwhile Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza has said that despite the relatively small fine, he will appeal the verdict. All parties involved in the trial agreed there was no intent to steal, he said. The court ruling is aimed at deterring activists, Diyabanza argued, adding that the movement to return looted art "will continue the fight by all means."

This article was translated from the German original by Dagmar Breitenbach.