In France, trial over 'theft' of colonial art raises question on restitution of items plundered by former empire

Congolese artist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and four others are under trial for attempting to steal a 19th-century African funeral pole from a museum, a charge they have denied saying that they were simply trying to draw attention to the artwork's origin

The Associated Press October 01, 2020 21:33:38 IST
In France, trial over 'theft' of colonial art raises question on restitution of items plundered by former empire

Congolese artist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza has been accused of theft of artwork in France. AP

Paris: Is dislodging African artwork from a European museum a political statement, or a criminal act?

That's the question a French court weighed on Wednesday in an emotionally charged trial centered around a Congolese activist campaigning to take back art he says was plundered by colonizers.

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

Congo-born Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza 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 livestreamed 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.

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

The question took on new urgency after this year's global protests against racial injustice unleashed by George Floyd's death in the US at the knee of a white policeman.

Diyabanza seized on that mood and has staged three livestreamed museum protests in recent months — in Paris, Marseille and the Netherlands.

French officials denounced the Quai Branly incident, saying it threatens ongoing negotiations with African countries launched by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 for legal, organized restitution efforts.

If convicted of attempted group theft of a historical object, Diyabanza could face up to 10 years in prison and a 150,000 euro fine ($173,000).

However, the lawyer for the French state did not ask for prison time, demanding only modest fines. A verdict is scheduled 14 October.

Diyabanza defended what he called a “political act” and said it's about time that Africans, Latin Americans and other colonized communities take back ill-gotten treasures.

He accuses European museums of making millions on artworks taken from now-impoverished countries like Congo, and said the pole, which came from current-day Chad, should be among works returned to Africa.

“We are the legitimate heirs of these works,” he said.

But he insisted that “appropriation wasn't my goal. ... The aim was to mark the symbolism of the liberation of these works."

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