You Can’t Steal What’s Yours

Courtesy of Mwazulu Diyabanza

A man of Congolese descent goes on trial on Wednesday because he’s out here in Europe ‘robbing’ museums like a real-life Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens. You remember, the rightfully conflicted son of Wakanda played by Michael B. Jordan in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther?

Bet, OK, so one fine June afternoon Mwazulu Diybanza and four fellow activists buy tickets and enter Paris’s Quai Branly Museum, the institution perched on a river that proudly hosts African treasures from its inglorious colonial era.

Once Diyabanza and his cohorts decide what they are going to take as restitution for what they describe as colonial era-theft, a member of the group films his arousing speech and livestreams the protest via Facebook.

We see Diyabanza with a group member’s help forcefully remove a 19th-century funeral post taken from a region that is now in Chad or Sudan. As the crew head to the exit, they are apprehended by security guards and offer no resistance.

The 42-year-old activist believes he has the right to take back art without asking for permission. “You do not ask thieves if you can reclaim your stolen property.”

Now Diyabanza and his fellow campaigners are facing a series of trials for attempted theft over the next four months in France and the Netherlands.

If found guilty the group could face up to seven years in prison and a $116,000 USD fine.

In July, the group live-streamed a protest at the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in Marseille in the South of France. A third in early September was also broadcast on Facebook. Diyabanza and other activists took a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands, before being arrested.

His protest comes amid growing calls to expose crimes of the colonial era as part of demonstrations for racial justice which have been heavily influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

Diyabanza, also the spokesperson of the Pan African group Unité Dignite Courage, says This act is the trigger for other powerful actions for the restitution of our stolen, looted and plundered goods.”

This supports the contention in Art Historian Alice Procter’s book, ‘The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it.’ Procter says, museums “need to be transparent about their Imperial legacies and theft — and confront the issue of repatriation. There’s no such thing as a free object, and every piece in a museum has been moved from its original context”.

In line with other aspects of white supremacy, racist narratives underpin the objects displayed in European and some American museums from the colonial period.

They neglect to inform the deferential public that Western European nations systematically tortured the Africans they enslaved to ensure a 350-year sugar and cotton production regime in the Americas and the Caribbean. During this dreadful process that morphed into Colonialism and Imperialism, they robbed us of our languages, cultures, and religions.

Through violent acquisitions, invading Western armies destroyed African cities like Benin City, Kumasi, and Maqdala and robbed our motherland of its art, which they proudly display as spoils of our terror in their museums.

Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of African and African diaspora art at Princeton University, coined the term “Blood Art to describe African treasures looted during conquest and occupations. The artifacts in museums acquired in this way should be returned home.

Imagine, France, a country a little smaller than the U.S. state of Texas holds much of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage — 90,000 or so objects.

Promises by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 to return looted acquisitions have seldom materialized, “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums,” he said in Burkina Faso. Since then, only 27 restitutions have been announced with only one object having been returned.

Despite that Macron should be credited as the first European leader to recognize a moral right of restitution of cultural heritage for stolen African art.

Conversely, in London, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum suggested that 80 artifacts looted from the Maqdala, the palace of the Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II in 1868 by British and colonial troops, could be returned to Ethiopia on a “long-term loan” basis.

Long term loans suggestions are impudent as they posit Europeans as owner overseers and Africans as beggars. Writing in the Modern Ghana journal, former UN legal adviser Kwame Opoku said, “the quest for the restitution of looted African artifacts is an essential element of our Independence that cannot be regarded as complete until a large part of the artifacts are back home.”

Diyabanza accepts there could be challenges when African art returns to the continent but he insists that it’s a conversation among Africans in Africa. “This art belongs and belonged to families, dynasties, clans, villages, and people across the continent.”

It won’t be just the Diyabanza on trial on Wednesday. Calvin Job, one of three lawyers defending the five activists says slavery and colonialism will be on trial too. “The French state has i­n its collections products of theft — If there is a thief in this case, he is not among us, but on the other side.”

Unlike Killmonger, Diyabanza orchestrated a radical but peaceful campaign that is forcing the lines for restitution to be redrawn. I’m hoping that with his help, Africa will gain access to and possession of its priceless cultural heritage.

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