African artefacts: Repatriation activists on trial for attempted theft at Paris museum

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Friday, 9 October 2020 03:18

quani branly activists
Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza talks to the media at the Palais de Justice courthouse, in Paris, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The five activists who removed a Bari funeral staff from its perch at the Quai Branly Museum in June 2020 appeared before the Court of Paris on Wednesday 30 September. During the trial, the ‘colonial continuum’ was discussed at length.

A large crowd showed up at the Court of Paris on the morning of 30 September to support fellow members of the organisation Unité, Dignité, Courage [Unity, Dignity, Courage] (UDC) who are on trial for attempted group theft of, and causing damage to, a registered object belonging to Paris’ Quai Branly Museum. Since only a limited number of people were permitted to enter the courtroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pan-African activists made their voices heard from the hallways.

With an understanding but firm demeanour, the presiding judge began by addressing the organisation’s spokesperson, the thunderous Congo-born personality Mwazulu Diyabanza Siwa Lemba, 41, who he asked to calm down the activists lingering outside the courtroom. “If calm is not restored and if those in attendance cannot remain completely silent to ensure the proper conduct of the proceedings, I will be forced to declare a mistrial,” the judge said. Diyabanza willingly acquiesced to his demands and, once calm was restored, the trial of the five defendants was able to continue normally.

The acts committed by Thibault Bao Abdelkader, Romain Catambara, Dihaoulou Bonelvy, Djaka Apakwa and Mwazulu Diyabanza come off as fairly minor compared to the law and the allegations against them.

Early in the afternoon of 12 June 2020, a group of zealous activists purchased tickets for the Quai Branly Museum. Once inside, they harangued the museum’s visitors, with their charismatic spokesperson taking the lead. The main message they wanted to get across was that objects looted by France and other Western nations during the colonial era need to be returned to Africa.

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Fuelled by these grievances and overtaken with anger, the activists removed a Bari funeral staff (originating from Chad) from its perch whilst shouting “We’re taking it home!” Apakwa livestreamed the stunt on UDC’s Facebook page. In the end, security guards put a stop to the spontaneous protest, the funeral staff was returned without incident and the police immediately arrested the five activists.

‘We are here to judge an infringement, not to judge history’

If this trial is particularly significant, it’s because it comes at a time when tension has reached a peak regarding the issue of repatriating African cultural objects.

…This second trial is not a judicial one, it’s a citizen’s trial, and we do not, in our capacity as judges, have a mandate to judge history nor to judge the past.

The presiding judge clearly sensed this and, right as the proceedings got under way, wanted to set the record straight: “Today, there are two trials. The trial judging four men and a woman, charged with two offences that will be judged under the law. And another trial, that of the history of Europe, the trial of colonialism, the trial of the misappropriation of the cultural heritage of nations. As for this second trial, I belong to a generation that has no misgivings about carrying out such justice so that peace and dignity can be restored, so that reconciliation among peoples can be achieved. However, this second trial is not a judicial one, it’s a citizen’s trial, and we do not, in our capacity as judges, have a mandate to judge history nor to judge the past. How many specialists, how many experts, how many dignitaries would we need to summon to be able to do just that? What value would our verdict have? Who would we convict? What would the sentences be? To whom would damages be paid? We are here to judge an infringement, not to judge history.”

As he pronounced these statements, he was, of course, playing his role. Nevertheless, on 30 September he wasn’t able – and probably didn’t want – to stop the Court of Paris from providing a platform to Pan-African militants.

Demanding justice

The first defendant to go before the court, 37-year-old Thibault Bao Abdelkader, from the Central African Republic, readily acknowledged that he had helped Diyabanza remove the Bari funeral staff from its perch inside the museum. In a calm, almost shy voice, he explained his involvement: “I came to the Quai Branly Museum as a representative of the African community which demands justice for past wrongs. It was important for me to be there with my comrades. If I helped remove the artwork in question, it was done so to alert African communities. We didn’t actually intend to leave the museum with it.”

I came to the Quai Branly Museum as a representative of the African community which demands justice for past wrongs.

True to form, 27-year-old law student Romain Catambara, from Reunion Island, quoted the Martinique-born thinker Frantz Fanon, driving home the following message: “Why did we come to the museum? Because that’s where objects stolen from Africa are housed, as the findings of a report drafted by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy indicate. For there to be harmony among peoples, repatriation has to happen. It’s our legitimate right, as Afro-descendants, to demand this. The purpose of our peaceful, performance-like act was to shake things up.”

The next defendant to speak was 28-year-old Dihaoulou Bonelvy, from the Republic of Congo. The judge’s questions were aimed at determining how premeditated the demonstration was and its ultimate objective, even though it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the five defendants had never intended to actually steal the funeral staff.

The trial bordered on political fiction at one point when the judge asked Bonelvy what he would have done if no security guards had been there to intervene. Calvin Job, a lawyer for one of the defendants, elicited a few stifled laughs from the courtroom audience when he pointed out the question’s incongruousness: “If no security guards had been present, then the museum would have been closed!”

‘We aren’t guilty of anything’

The highly anticipated remarks made by Diyabanza, UDC’s international spokesperson, got bogged down in political digressions and more or less spiritual ramblings: “What I’m saying comes from the people, the past, the present, the future”, “We are a movement of reflection and action, the action taken is the consequence of the discussion”, “We reject the classification of group theft”, “If there’s any person here who knows the value of this artwork, it’s me!”, and so on.

A visitors look at wooden royal statues of the Dahomey kingdom, dated 19th century, today’s Benin,at Quai Branly museum in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Despite the clarity of his ideas – his essential point being that everything belonging to Africa needs to be returned – his words were jumbled and colliding into one another, and his monologue stretched on. Irritated, the presiding judge finally scolded him: “Sir, you are going off topic! You keep repeating the word ‘politics’. This is tiring. We have gotten your point, as have the journalists in the courtroom. We have no time to mistake your trial for a citizen’s trial!”

Deeply passionate about his combat, Diyabanza is the only defendant with a criminal record – he has been convicted a total of three times on charges including slander and violence against a vulnerable person. His demonstration at the Quai Branly Museum was followed by two others, first at the La Vieille Charité Museum in Marseille on 30 July 2020, and then at the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal, the Netherlands, in September.

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In response to the lawyer representing the Quai Branly Museum, who opportunely reminded the court of these other demonstrations, implying that a repeat offence was possible in the future, Diyabanza assured the judge: “We carried out other demonstrations and we’ve reached our goal, which was to remove these objects from the setting in which they’ve been confined.” In his view, it’s clear that the activists never intended to leave with the artworks or claim ownership of them. Politics is a performance.

The last defendant to take the stand, Djaka Apakwa, was accompanied by her father, who claims to be King Djaka I of the Gondi kingdom. Her speech was in line with that of her fellow activists, as she described their protest as a “symbolic dramatisation” in which each person involved was “more or less acting”. If, like the others, she refused to have her fingerprints taken after being arrested by the police, it’s for a simple reason: “We aren’t guilty of anything, we didn’t commit any offences and we only wanted to get a message across by carrying out a political act.”

Moral lesson

Regretful that there was “not enough time to address such important questions”, the presiding judge gave the floor to the lawyers representing the Quai Branly Museum and the French state. While Yvon Goutal was in the middle of speaking on behalf of the museum, emphasising how much it cost to restore the funeral staff (€489), a woman was escorted out of the courtroom as she shouted “I can’t put up with hearing that anymore! They belong to us, sir, the artworks belong to us! I can’t put up with that any longer! They belong to us!”

Unfazed, the lawyer continued his arguments by insisting on the detrimental effects the museum had experienced since the incident: some lenders supposedly threatened to withdraw artworks on display at the museum.

“There is also the question of the necessity of this political act with regard to freedom of expression,” the lawyer said. “Was it necessary to initiate this debate? Was it vital? No, just the opposite is true! This issue wasn’t up for debate five years ago. Back then, these objects were considered inalienable. This position has since changed and is no longer monolithic. The foundation for a new approach was laid out by President Emmanuel Macron during his speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This demonstration wasn’t necessary at all since talks with African states are under way, following the Sarr-Savoy report. And these talks aren’t pointless since draft legislation currently exists on the matter.” In his view, the activists’ intervention inside the museum was “counterproductive in relation to a nuanced debate”.

A visitor looks at the wooden and metal throne of the King Ghezo of the Dahomey kingdom, dated 19th century, today’s Benin at Quai Branly museum in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

More emphatic, the lawyer representing the French state attacked the defendants for their “desire to demonstrate that they could freely take property owned by the state” and demanded €5,000 in compensation for non-material damage. This is quite the provocative argument for anyone who has ever taken a little interest in the way some artefacts became “national treasures” or “registered artworks”.

Visibly ill at ease, the prosecutor’s remarks were carefully measured when it came her turn to speak: “I understand the context of a long, hard struggle. It reverberates from these activists in a powerful, outpouring way,” she said. Recommending a “compassionate sentence”, i.e., a €1,000 fine for Diyabanza and a €500 suspended fine for each of his four accomplices, she closed her remarks with a moral lesson: “The issue of repatriating artworks is deeply complex and deeply rooted. There are diplomatic, political and peaceful ways to address it that don’t disrupt public order.”

‘Theft of their identity’

The defendants’ lawyers, all of whom have African origins and a certain attachment to France, were up next and presented their clients’ cases in an atmosphere of calm, despite running short on time. “It needs to be said that this is the trial of the colonial continuum,” said lawyer Hakim Chergui. “This is about fighting a form of violence that continues to this day! These proceedings involve only 26 artworks, but how many other objects were looted? According to the Sarr-Savoy report, the Quai Branly Museum houses 116,000 looted artefacts. It’s outrageous to say that things are moving forward. These artworks were stolen from people who are suffering because of such theft. We’re talking about people’s identity, people’s future. My clients didn’t commit theft; they merely interrupted the possession of stolen goods!”

A visitor walks past a door of the king’s palace Gele of the Dahomey kingdom, dated19th century, today’s Benin, at Quai Branly museum in Paris, France, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Impassioned, he continued to build on his momentum, although his voice was beginning to falter: “This is about bringing an end to stolen history. My clients are fighting against the theft of their identity. This funeral staff that we’re talking about, it’s being exploited for profit!”

A little bit later, Job expanded on this idea of their identity being infringed upon: “These activists are trying to find their identity in a France that doesn’t recognise their identity in day-to-day life. Their identity was confiscated and then confined and locked away in museums. Coming closer to these artworks is to seek out spiritual communion. I could even go as far as to say that perhaps the spirits inhabiting these sculptures call out to those who cross the Mediterranean Sea.”

‘Appallingly slow’ change

Like Chergui, he raised his voice as he defended the need for the demonstration: “They had to take some kind of symbolic action! Conventions have existed since the 1970s and the debate is an old one, but the implementation of decisions has been appallingly slow. Yes, Benin and Senegal – two democracies – requested the return of artworks. What about the others? In high places, France can remind African nations about how to carry out presidential elections, or point out their debt burden or even cut them off. That’s the reality! Today, France is looking to go down the path of passing special legislation. If its institutions truly wanted to repatriate African artworks, then the French Heritage Code would be changed. No, things are not advancing fast enough!”

READ MORE Why France is dragging its feet to repatriate looted African artworks

At around 3 p.m. the trial that had begun four hours earlier was coming to a close. Since Diyabanza and Apakwa were representing themselves, they addressed the courtroom last. Diyabanza, looking the part of a martyr, cited kindred spirits such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Winnie Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr, condemning “corrupt individuals, thieves and fences” and inviting the presiding judge to not behave in the manner of a new Pontius Pilate.

Apakwa’s more serene comments gave pause for thought: “For you, these sculptures are works of art – they’re beautiful. For us, these are entities, ritual objects that maintained the order at home, in our villages in Africa, in our societies.” Outside the courtroom, Pan-African activists and TV reporters were waiting to hear Diyabanza’s statements. The judges will hand down their verdict at 9 a.m. on 14 October.

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