In June, Mwazulu Diyabanza stood in a Paris museum next to a 19th century funerary post from central Africa, and berated France for taking it and tens of thousands of other art works from its former colonies.
He and an associate prised the carved wooden ornament from its stand in the Quai Branly museum as a third man live-streamed the act on social media. Diyabanza was stopped by a security guard as he made for the exit.
“My mother used to tell me that when the Europeans arrived, they pillaged these artifacts, they pillaged our patrimony,” he told Reuters. “We’re in a fight to recover our (cultural) wealth.”
A Congolese who has lived in France for 20 years, Diyabanza belongs to a pan-African movement that is pressing France to return those artifacts and make reparations for acts of slavery.
He appeared in court on Wednesday charged with attempted theft. Prosecutors demanded a fine, and a verdict is due on Oct 14.
Diyabanza’s case has led to renewed scrutiny of France’s history in a year in which anti-racism protests have forced developed nations to re-examine how they remember their colonial pasts.
Diyabanza, who faces a second theft charge for removing an artifact from a Marseille museum and taking it to a police station, considers his actions politically justified.
“Who is the real thief in this story? The thief is he who takes something fraudulently. I’m the legitimate inheritor,” he said.
A huge part of Africa’s cultural heritage is on display in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds some 70,000 African objects, with London’s British Museum holding thousands more, French art historian Benedicte Savoy told Reuters in 2018.
That year, Savoy co-authored a report with Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recommending the widespread return of cultural artifacts removed from Africa, identifying 46,000 objects that would qualify at the Quai Branly. The museum declined to comment for this article.
Also in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron said “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums”.
Diyabanza wholeheartedly agrees. “People see beautiful buildings. We hear the cries of women and children,” he said.
So far, however, records indicate that fewer than 30 African artifacts in French collections have been handed back.