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Five go on trial for seizing 'pillaged' African artwork from Paris museum

Visitors at the Quai Branly museum in Paris on June 9, 2020.
Visitors at the Quai Branly museum in Paris on June 9, 2020. © Franck Fife, AFP
3 min

Five activists went on trial in Paris on Wednesday for trying to seize an African funeral staff from France's pre-eminent indigenous art museum at the Quai Branly, hoping to increase pressure on the government to restitute items they say were stolen during the colonial era. 

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Is removing African artwork from a museum a legitimate political statement or a criminal act? That is the question a French court weighed on Wednesday in an emotionally charged trial centred around a Congolese activist campaigning to take back art he says was plundered by colonisers. 

Congo-born Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, 41, and four other activists went on trial on attempted theft charges for removing a 19th-century African funeral pole from its perch in the museum in a June protest that was live-streamed on Facebook. Guards quickly stopped them; the activists argue that they never planned to steal the work but just wanted to call attention to its origins.

"We're taking it home," he said in the video posted on social media, denouncing "the pillage of Africa".

Lurking beneath nearly every exchange in the courtroom was the question of whether and how former empires should atone for colonial-era actions. 

“It belongs to us!” shouted a Black woman watching the trial, breaking down in tears and storming out after a lawyer for the Quai Branly museum insisted that its holdings – including tens of thousands of artworks from former colonies – rightly belong to the French state. 

'Injustice of pillaging Africa'

Since then Diyabanza has staged similar operations at indigenous art museums in the southern French city of Marseille and in Berg en Dal, in the Netherlands.

"It was important to approach this trial with a combative spirit, even if it's risky," Diyabanza told AFP.

"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.

He and the four others are charged with attempted theft of a registered artwork, and face up to 10 years in prison and 150,000 euros ($176,000) in fines.

Diyabanza himself sued the French state after his arrest in June, accusing it of "theft and receiving stolen goods" in amassing the huge collection of native artworks beginning in the colonial era.

'An insult'

French officials condemned the stunt, which came after President Emmanuel Macron pledged shortly after his 2017 election to study the restitution of African cultural treasures.

France has since returned a ceremonial sword to Senegal and promised to return some two-dozen works to Benin.

"The issue of restitution ... deserves a serious debate," said Emmanuel Kasarherou, director of the Quai Branly, which is a civil party in the trial against Diyabanza.

Kasarherou, a Kanak from the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, this year became the first indigenous person ever to head a major French national museum.

His museum "is documenting the origins of its collections and how they were obtained, and using this work as a basis, we can move forward", he told AFP.

Critics accuse the French state of not doing enough, citing for example the auction of sacred statues in Paris last summer despite requests by Nigeria to halt the sale. 

An expert report commissioned by Macron in 2018 counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, but suggested a "circulation" of some works between museums rather than an outright return, saying not all were pillaged or stolen.

"Macron has acknowledged the pillaging, but he's the one who decides how many works are returned, and whether or not there should be a property transfer -- it's an insult for us," Diyabanza said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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