Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese activist, led a protest action in June at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which was broadcast live on Facebook, removing a 19th-century African tombstone from his stand. steal the exhibit, but only to draw attention to its origins.
Diyabanza also led protests at museums in Marseille and the Netherlands. He condemns the “looting of Africa.” In the June video, he says, “We’re taking him home.”
“We had no intention of stealing this work, but we will not stop until the injustice of robbing Africa is remedied,” he told AFP before the trial.
Arrested after his action, he in turn sued the French state for “stealing and receiving stolen goods” which make up a huge collection of native works from the colonial era, reports The Guardian.
The appearance that took place on Wednesday was marked by emotional outbursts from those present and even from lawyers. “It’s ours!” Shouted a woman of color during the museum lawyer’s plea, stressing that the collections – which include thousands of pieces of art from the former colonies – belong to the French state.
French officials have denounced the incident at the Quai Branly museum, saying it jeopardizes ongoing negotiations with African countries on restitutions of African works of art, as part of an initiative launched in 2018 by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The penalty for attempted theft of a museum piece is usually up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros. However, the lawyer representing the museum did not demand imprisonment with execution, but only modest fines for the five activists -1,000 euros for the leader, respectively 500 euros for the others. A verdict is expected on October 14.
On the other hand, Diyabanza defended what he called a “political act” arguing that the time had come for Africans, Latin Americans and other colonized communities to take back their dishonestly appropriated treasures. He denounced the fact that European museums obtain millions of euros from works of art taken from poor countries such as the Congo and that the tombstone, which comes from the current territory of Chad, should be returned to Africa.
“We are the legitimate heirs of these works,” he said, noting that his goal was not to steal the piece but to “mark the symbolism of liberation contained in these pieces.”
The judge asked the activists why they thought they had the right to do justice to themselves. He stressed that the trial should focus on the museum incident and not on issues such as colonial injustices over which the court in question has no jurisdiction.
“We are here to judge a crime, not history,” he said.
Emmanuel Kasarherou, the director of the museum, which is a civil party in the action against the activists, is a member of the Kanak indigenous people in French New Caledonia and the first native to lead a major museum in France.
Yvon Goutal, a lawyer for the Quai Branly Museum, argued that “this political act is not necessary” given that France is in talks with African governments and the French state “is very committed to this action and is serious” about going all the way. He was moved when he gave the example of the skulls of fighters in the Algerian resistance in the 19th century – they were returned to Algeria to cancel it.
“A feeling of frustration is accumulating in the population and it is growing and growing,” he said, calling Wednesday’s appearance “a trial for the colonial continuum.”
A group of supporters protested in front of the court that they were not left in the courtroom – a small one, in which social distancing measures were taken.
The Quai Branly Museum, located on the banks of the Seine near the Eiffel Tower, was built during the reign of President Jacques Chirac and exhibits non-European art, especially from the former French colonies.
A study commissioned by Macron in 2018 recommended that French museums return appropriate works of art without approval, to the extent that African countries request it. France is currently on the verge of returning 26 pieces of African art from some 90,000 in French museums, most of them at Quai Branly.
“Macron has acknowledged the robberies, but he is the one who decides how many works are returned and whether there should be a transfer of ownership – it’s insulting,” Diyabanza said.