Culture Trips

‘We want our riches back’ – the African activist taking treasures from Europe’s museums | Art

Mwazulu Diyabanza makes no secret of why he is in France. If coronavirus had not closed most of Europe’s museums, the Congolese activist would probably be inside one right now, wresting African objects from their displays to highlight what he sees as the mass pillaging of the continent by European colonialists.

And it’s not just the mighty museums. Diyabanza and his supporters also plan to include smaller galleries, private collections and auction houses in their campaign. “Wherever the riches of our heritage and culture have been stolen,” says the 42-year-old, “we will intervene.” As the leader of a pan-African movement called Yanka Nku (Unity, Dignity and Courage), Diyabanza is on a mission is to recover all works of art and culture taken from Africa to Europe. He calls his method “active diplomacy”.

Last June, in between French lockdowns, Diyabanza and several others entered the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which has around 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Shouting “We’re taking it home!”, they wrenched from its setting a 19th-century African funeral post that belonged to the Bari people of Chad. Police recovered the object and held Diyabanza in custody for three days. A judge fined him €1,000 for “attempted theft”.

A month later, in Marseille, Diyabanza attempted to remove an ivory spear from the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art. He was let off in court. Then, come autumn, he was in the Netherlands attempting to remove a Congolese statue from the Afrika Museum at Berg en Dal. He was given a two-month suspended sentence and a €250 fine.

“The prosecutor had wanted me convicted to discourage others,” says Diyabanza over the phone. “But the judge recognised that I was not guilty of ‘theft’ but of a political act. He opened the door to discussions with the museum authorities. So I’m going back to the Netherlands with the idea of discussing this.”

Although further actions were planned this month in Brussels, they have been thwarted by Covid-19 closures. But more are in the diary. “We will be looking at Spain, Germany, Portugal, the Vatican and – yes – the UK,” he says. “We will be visiting the British Museum once it reopens. It contains some chef d’oeuvres that are very symbolic.”

On its website, the British Museum admits that some objects in its Africa collections have “difficult histories, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired, such as through military action”. It adds: “The British Museum is actively engaged in re-examining the acquisition histories of such collections and caring for them with appropriate respect, in close dialogue with African partners.”

The 900 objects from the Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria, are particularly problematic. They include exhibits that were looted from Benin City by a British military force in 1897, most famous among them the mesmerising Benin bronzes, created from the 16th century onwards by specialist guilds. The Royal Palace was burned and destroyed,” the museum’s website explains. “Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’, or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank.”

Looted … the Benin bronzes at London’s British Museum.
Looted … the Benin bronzes at London’s British Museum. Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Diyabanza, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now spends his time in France and Togo, says talk is fine – but action is needed. He estimates that in France alone there are 116,000 African objects that should be returned. In November 2017, during a speech in Mauritania, French president Emmanuel Macron promised to return African works housed in French national museums. Since then, only 27 restitutions have been announced and only one object repatriated: a sword that had belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a West African political leader, Islamic scholar and warlord.

Diyabanza has now widened his campaign with the creation of the FMAS, the Front Multiculturel Anti Spoliation, or the Multicultural Front against Pillaging. This aims to reunite people across the globe with what he calls their robbed heritage. These include artefacts belonging to Native American tribes, aborigines and indigenous peoples of the Philippines, Indonesia, Peru and elsewhere.

“We have to give a voice to these people,” he says, “and push them to join our action so we can pressure western governments to return everything. This restitution must be immediate and unconditional and carried out with dignity and respect – and it must happen everywhere in Europe. The museums and institutions of these countries must understand that we are determined.

Senegal president Macky Sall, right, receiving the sword that belonged to Omar Saidou Tall from French prime minister Édouard Philippe in 2019.
Senegal president Macky Sall, right, receiving the sword that belonged to Omar Saidou Tall from French prime minister Édouard Philippe in 2019. Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

“For the moment, we are concentrating on museums. We are optimistic governments will eventually cooperate. Then we will ask people who have objects in private collections to act with goodwill and return the things that have been stolen from us. But, eventually, it’s not just our artefacts but our land and our riches: the minerals, diamonds and gold; the animals, flora and fauna. And reparations – but that is another campaign.”

Diyabanza is not concerned if his movement leaves many European museums practically empty. He has described the removal of art and cultural objects from Africa between 1880 and 1960 as a “vast operation of theft and pillaging that came just after Africa suffered one of the greatest crimes against humanity: slavery”. He is not opposed to African and other objects being displayed in Europe. But he wants to see them returned first and then they can be lent on their owners’ terms.

“These museums are guilty of receiving stolen goods,” he says. “Perhaps they can be decolonised and give birth to something new.The current health restrictions mean our popular actions are restricted. But we have to continue so we can rebuild our own cultural heritage. These are our objects and we want them back.”

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