Anti-Colonial Activist Fined For Taking Artwork From A Paris Museum

Paris court fines anti-colonial activist 2,000 euros for taking a 19th century African artwork from a Museum in Paris

Oct 14, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Background: African art from Paris museum Quai Branley, via Quai Branley. Foreground: Congolese anticolonial activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, photo by Elliott Verdier via New York Times.

Anti-colonial activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza received a fine of 2,000 euros ($2,320) for attempting to seize a 19th-century African artwork from a museum in Paris. Diyabanza had executed and live-streamed via Facebook his anti-colonial stunt in June.

According to AP, the Paris court found Diyabanza and his two fellow activists guilty of attempted theft on October 14th. However, the 2,000 euros fine, is far from what they were initially facing: a fine of 150,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

The Congolese activist has performed similar actions in museums in the Netherlands and the French city of Marseille. Through his activity, Diyabanza seeks to pressure European museums into returning looted African art to its countries of origin.

The Chronicle of an Anti-Colonial Protest

Black Lives Matter protest, photo by Gayatri Malhotra

On May 25th, George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white policeman ignited a wave of anti-racist protests. Within this political context, the Congo-born activist saw an opportunity to protest the colonial element still present in European museums.

Alongside four associates, Diyabanza entered Quai Branly Museum in Paris. He then gave a speech denouncing the colonial theft of African art while another activist filmed the act. Diyabanza blamed the West for profiting from stolen cultural heritage from now-impoverished African countries arguing that: “no one has the right to take our patrimony, our riches and profit millions and millions.”

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, photo by Elliott Verdier via The New York Times

Things quickly escalated when Diyabanza removed a 19th-century Chadian funeral pole and attempted to leave the museum. The museum guards stopped the group before it was able to exit the premises. The Culture minister later said that the African artwork did not suffer significant damage and the museum would ensure required restoration.

One month later, Diyabanza live-streamed another stunt at the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in the southern French city of Marseille. In September, he realized a third anti-colonial action at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands. This time, he seized a Congolese funeral statue before the museum guards were able to stop him once more.

By live-streaming his museum protests on Facebook, Diyabanza has managed to shake things up in the museum world.

Diyabanza’s Trial

Diyabanza speaks after the verdict, photo by Lewis Joly via Associated Press

Diyabanza and his fellow activists claim they had no intention of stealing the African artwork from Quai Branly; a museum in the center of Paris housing a great part of France’s colonial collections. They argue that they aimed to raise awareness regarding the African artwork’s colonial origins.

At the beginning of the trial, the activists faced up to 10 years of imprisonment and 150,000 euros in fines. Diyabanza’s defense team attempted to turn the tables by accusing France of stealing African art with little success. In the end, the presiding judge focused on the specific incident at Quai Branly. His argument for refusing was that his court was not responsible for judging France’s colonial history.

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Finally, Diyabanza was found guilty and received a fine of 2,000 euros. He also received the following advice from the judge: “You have other means to attract the attention of the political class and the public”.

Diyabanza now awaits his next trial in November for the protest in Marseille.

Anti-Colonial Activism and Museum Responses

The Louvre in Paris

Although French officials have unequivocally denounced the protest in Quai Branly, there are mixed responses from the museum community.

Quai Branly has officially condemned the protest while Other museum professionals also fear an increase in protests of this kind.

Dan Hicks, archaeology professor and curator at Pitt Rivers Museum, expressed a different opinion at the New York Times:

“When it comes to the point that our audience feels the need to protest, then we’re probably doing something wrong…We need to open our doors to conversations when our displays have hurt or upset people.”

An action similar to the one in Quai Branly took place at the Museum of London Docklands in September. There, Isaiah Ogundele protested against the display of four Benin bronzes and was later found guilty of harassment. Amidst rising anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, more people are becoming dissatisfied with the way museums conceal colonial histories.

Earlier this year, the Ashmolean Museum viewed positively the return of a 15th-Century Bronze Idol to India. Just last week, the directors of the Rijksmuseum and the Troppenmuseum – two of the Netherlands’ largest museums– endorsed a report which could lead to the repatriation of up to 100,000 objects from Dutch museums. The U.S. is also slowly moving towards anti-colonial and anti-racist museum frameworks.

However, it seems that things are not as easy. In 2018 France received similar recommendations to the Netherlands. Immediately President Emmanuel Macron promised the organization of extensive restitution programs. Two years later, only 27 restitutions have been announced and just one object has returned to its country of origin.

Author Image

By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.