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Thursday, October 29, 2020

‘It belongs to us!’: Tense French trial over colonial art

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.

By: AP | Paris | October 1, 2020 5:39:47 pm
“No one has sought to find out what harm has been done to Africa,” Mwazulu Diyabanza, an activist, said in court on Wednesday. He and four associates are on trial in the attempted theft of an African object from the Quai Branly Museum.Credit...Thibault Camus/Associated Press

Is dislodging African artwork from a European museum a political statement, or a criminal act? That’s the question a French court weighed 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 (USD 173,000).

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

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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