On Friday 12th June, five men were arrested amid Black Lives Matter protests for attempting to reclaim a 19th Century funerary pole from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France. The scene was captured on film by the five men, who were all members of Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux, a pan-African organisation fighting for the liberation of Africa and its transformation. The video depicts Mwazulu Diyabanza from the Democratic Republic of Congo being stopped from taking the piece from the permanent collection of the museum, which displays over seventy thousand artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa. Those involved are to face trial in September, with a potential seven-year prison sentence and a fine of €100,000 as a result of their actions.
Although sparked directly by recent events relating to the Black Lives Matter Movement worldwide, Diyabanza’s actions tie into the larger debate about the restitution of artefacts from foreign places, usually former colonies, which have been stolen from the area of origin. President Macron is making steps towards returning artefacts to the country from which they were taken through a restitution policy, with their return being permanent. It is estimated in the report that 90% of the physical cultural heritage of Africa is not housed within the continent. Of the 70,000 artefacts from Sub-Saharan Africa in the museum, it is estimated that 66% were taken during the colonial era of 1880-1960.
African culture, art and history fascinates me. I remember to this day an Egyptian history exhibit I went to many years ago, causing me to fall in love with the country’s history, coupled with a new-found appreciation for artefacts from eras and cultures past. In a similar light I would love to see the Sub-Saharan African pieces in question for myself, learn more and admire them, but them having been taken without consent does not sit well with me. They belong to the area in which they were created, celebrated and used properly, and although education and sharing culture is important and valued, this can be achieved by other means which do not involve theft. The ability for us to witness these pieces could be satisfied through the modern practice in museums with loaning work from other institutions or a mutual exchange, benefitting all by allowing education on both sides but also fostering partnerships between nations and cultures. No stealing required, and no immoral acts and ideas are upheld.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to progress and protests continue, I would not be surprised if similar incidents arise in the coming months and years, as further debates surrounding restitution are sparked.