artifacts on display
Art from Benin on display at the Quai Branly. GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

Colonizers Stole Africa's Art; This Man Is Taking It Back

Mwazulu Diyabanza has spent the summer of 2020 trying to reclaim African art from museums in Europe.
September 22, 2020, 5:29pm

In one of the most arresting scenes in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the character Erik Killmonger, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, speaks to a curator at the fictitious Museum of Great Britain in London. Killmonger asks the curator about different artifacts in the exhibit, and when he tells her that he plans to take the object from Wakanda, the curator objects. “These items aren’t for sale,” she tells him. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” Killmonger responds. “You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”

Although the fictional Killmonger dies at the end of the movie, a real-life Killmonger lives: Mwazulu Diyabanza has spent the summer of 2020 trying to reclaim African art from museums across Europe. In June, he took a north-central African funeral post from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. In July, he took a sword from the Museum of Africa, Oceanic, and Native American Arts in Marseille. And in September, just a few weeks ago, he took a Congolese statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal in the Netherlands.

“I don’t think I'm like Killmonger, he’s a fictional character,” Diyabanza told VICE News. “But, my approach is compatible. I can play that role, but I know how to get away with things without murdering people, and how to be effective with my actions.”

Nevertheless, Diyabanza said that when he watched Black Panther, he was struck by the infamous art scene. “They represented our artifacts that were of extreme importance in African history, created by groups of people who were great patriots and representatives of the continent,” he said. “And, there was a restoration of truth in the Black Panther narrative. The truth is restored behind these objects and how they were taken, and the narratives of colonialism and violence are brought forth.”

Diyabanza and his colleagues livestreamed their activities on Facebook while denouncing colonial theft. They were apprehended by museum security every time, but Diyabanza's goal, in addition to reclaiming these artifacts of importance, is to “take a message to those who carried out macabre violence, rapings, and killings, and let them know they have not won or prevailed. They don’t own these objects, or us.”

These issues are personal for Diyabanza, as well. He said his family is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and were royalty on his mother’s side dating back to the 15th century. His grandfather, he said, was the governor of the Mpangu province and in absence of the king was in charge. During the tenure of his grandfather, Diyabanza said, Europeans arrived and stole artifacts from him and their community. These items have remained in family lore, among them, a hat made from multiple animal skins, an intricate cane, a copper Lemba bracelet, and a leopard skin worn in rituals that honored ancestors. Diyabanza has spent years trying to track down these objects, and thinks he has located a few of them in museums all over the world.

In fact, Diyabanza claimed that when he was at the Afrika Museum in the Netherlands, he actually saw his grandfather’s bracelet. “From generation to generation people are told about these objects. Being there, and seeing the bracelet, was extremely moving. I was emotional to see the wealth that belongs to me in other people’s hands, that was taken through violence and brutality and then put on display.” The Lemba bracelet, traditionally made of copper or gold, is engraved with a profile of a person. Though there are several of these bracelets, Diyabanza said that they are all unique and the different engravings symbolize authority, wisdom, or different virtues. Today, different Lemba bracelets can be found at museums all over the world, from the World Museum in Liverpool to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. According to Diyabanza, the bracelet at the Afrika Museum was in a glass case, which is why he didn’t take it. (The Afrika Museum has not responded to repeated requests for comment.) He doesn’t plan to ask for dispensation anytime soon, though. “I have the right to take back art without asking for permission,” he said, “because you do not ask thieves if you can reclaim your stolen property.”

Diyabanza is the international spokesperson for Unité Dignite Courage, a Pan-African organization that he said boasts thousands of members and sympathizers from all over the world. Inspired by Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the goal of the group, Diyabanza said, is “total liberation.” Diyabanza splits his time between Paris and Lomé, Togo, and helps the group plan campaigns beyond the repatriation of art: “We are working to have foreign troops, especially the French, removed from African soil, we want to remove vestiges of colonialism like the CFA Franc [West and Central African currencies that are guaranteed by France], and we want to eliminate technical assistance, aid, and development cooperation as conducted by Western countries.” They also want to assist in reviewing and decolonizing educational material across the continent, and have started working on that at their center in Lomé.

Now, Diyabanza and his fellow organizers face three trials over the next four months in France and the Netherlands, as well as a possible prison sentence. “They are using radical action to call attention to a problem European and American museums and authorities would rather wish away so they can return to the unjust and shameful status quo,” Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of African and African diaspora art at Princeton University, told VICE News. “I assume the museums involved understand the point of this brand of activism,” he said. “If they don't, they should.”

In response to Diyabanza’s June actions in Paris, French culture minister Franck Riester told French reporters that he “condemns with the utmost firmness these acts which damage heritage…While the debate on the restitution of works from the African continent is perfectly legitimate,” he added, “it can in no way justify this type of action.” The museum director of the Afrika Museum in the Netherlands, Stijn Schoonderwoerd, told the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, a Dutch public broadcast organization, that “these people wanted to make a statement and to do it publicly.”

Questions about the restitution of stolen art have haunted museums for decades. These issues are not unique to Africa: Greece’s pleas for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and the reclaiming of Chinese artifacts and resulting museum break-ins have been discussed for years. However, while museums around the world have recently expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, many institutions have yet to deal with their own culpability and theft of African art. Diyabanza said that these shows of solidarity, while commendable, are not sincere: “The fight against racism happens on the surface but doesn’t address the root of the issue, the colonial domination.”

The British Museum, one of the largest museums in Europe, is one such institution. The museum has been criticized by activists for their holding of the Benin Bronzes, a set of reliefs looted from modern day Nigeria by the British army in the late 19th century. It possesses 69,000 African artifacts, but it is far from alone.

At the Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium, there are 180,000 African artifacts. At the Humboldt Forum in Germany, 75,000. The Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, the museum from which Diyabanza first attempted to take art, claims 70,000 African objects. A 2018 report, commissioned by the President Emmanuel Macron and conducted by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, unsurprisingly found that up to 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s art is located outside Africa. The study, now referred to as the Sarr-Savoy report, concluded that these objects should be returned to their countries of origin.

The restitution of African art and objects isn’t unprecedented; a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a leader in Senegal, was returned by France in an emotional 2019 ceremony. France has also said it will return 26 artifacts—just several of the thousands requested by Benin—to the country from the Quai Branly museum by 2021. Belgium recently returned the tooth of assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba to his family, and the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman kidnapped and abused by France in the 18th century, were returned to South Africa after repeated requests in 2002.

Germany has said it would look into restitution as well, and designed guidelines in 2019 for the repatriation of stolen artifacts. Among these items are human remains from Herero and Namaqua genocide in Namibia, where German soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands of people at the turn of the 20th century. Museums in the Netherlands have claimed that they are interested in repatriating art too, and The Afrika Museum, the latest site of Diyabanza’s actions, indicated in 2019 that they are in favor of returning stolen goods. Despite these calls to action, it still remains to be seen if most of these pieces will actually be returned to their countries of origin.

Regardless, the conversations around the decolonization of museums and restitution is “no longer a background murmur,” said Okeke-Agulu. Instead, “The high-profile intervention of President Macron, the coverage given [by] the Sarr-Savoy Report, and the insistent pressure from African public intellectuals, governments and governmental agencies, and social media chatter have made restitution arguably the biggest issue facing major European and American museums today.”

Calls for reparations have reverberated outside of the art world as well: Over the past few months, several countries across Africa have started to demand reparations from colonial oppressors. Namibia recently turned down a reparations offer from Germany, deeming it “not acceptable.” In August, Burundi requested $43 billion for reparations from Belgium and Germany. The Democratic Republic of Congo has called for reparations from Belgium in light of a recent “apology” from King Philippe of Belgium for decades of violent colonial rule.

Diyabanza recognizes that there could be challenges when African art finally returns home. But that conversation “will happen within Africa and with Africans. This art belongs and belonged to families, dynasties, clans, villages, and people across the continent. There’s a dialogue that needs to occur to understand to whom this art should be returned, especially allowing art to be reintegrated into people’s daily lives the way these artifacts were meant to be used before slavery and colonialism.” To make this happen, he believes people from all over the world would have to join the cause. “We’re calling out to the African diaspora to join the movement, but also to Western people,” he said. “It’s a matter of ethics and justice, and we can’t let people that perpetrated such violence win.”

Diyabanza is calm in the face of the upcoming cases. “I’m going into these trials knowing that it is an injustice and a way for countries to oppress,” he said. “I am serene.”