This man wants to reclaim Africa’s lost art

It’s estimated that 90-95% of Africa’s known heritage is housed outside of the continent. There’s now a growing movement to address this.
Written by Joe Wahome
28 April 2021

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In 2020, Mwazulu Diyabanza walked into the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, forcefully grabbed a wooden funerary post with origins from Africa, and headed to the door while claiming he had repossessed it for Africa. This led to heated debate in the media and online about Africa’s lost heritage from the colonial era.

Although he was stopped by the museum’s guards, the point had been made by his largely symbolic and political gesture. There are thousands of items of African art and artifacts residing in museums and galleries around the world, but mostly in Europe, that were looted from the continent.

Mwazulu was fined €1,000 for the Quai Branly Museum debacle, but that didn’t stop him from seizing another artifact at Marseille’s Museum of African, at the Oceanic and Native American Arts, and later a Congolese funeral statue at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands.

Mwazulu Diyabanza is an art and cultural activist. His protest and arrest at Quai Branly Museum in Paris led to heated discussions about African art. Source| Mwazulu Diyabanza.

Mwazulu grew up in a middle-class family in the former Zaire. His father had already moved to Europe while his mother was a trader in Kinshasa. His activism started while he was in school – at 13 he joined the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, a political party affiliated with the late Etienne Tshisekedi and, like many Africans, his role model was Patrice Lumumba.

“I am the international spokesperson for the Pan-African organization Yankanku/Unite Dignite Courage and also the secretary general of OTID, a trade union. I am a humanist and committed to the struggle for the liberation of Mother Africa and for the restitution of plundered African art,” Mwazulu told me recently, via email, from his home in France.”

“After the creation of the Unity Dignite Courage in 2014, point 11 of our 14-point manifesto dealt with the issue of reparations. Reparation for all crimes committed in Africa and against Africans everywhere in the world. It is within this framework that we approach the question of the restitution of our cultural and religious heritage.”

Experts estimate that 90-95% of Africa’s known art reside in Europe, like this tribal mask at Quai Branly Museum, Paris. Source | Wikimedia.

“Europe and the West must be accountable for what happened during the dark days of slavery and colonization. This must not end there, they must legally aim to convict criminals while compensating the aggrieved. This compensation must be financial. They should reimburse all the financial windfall amassed during the period of exhibition of our works of art and heritage,” says Diyabanza.

It is estimated that 90-95% of Africa’s known heritage is housed outside the continent and most of it was looted during the colonial period. Diyabanza laments over the fact that he must pay a European museum to view his heritage.

France pledged to return some of the stolen art but to date only a Senegalese sword, scabbard and Benin’s 26 artifacts have been returned. Source| Wikimedia.

In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to give back much of Africa’s heritage held in French museums, commissioning academics to write a report on how to proceed. A year later the report recommended that any artifacts removed from Africa in colonial times should be returned if they were taken by force, acquired through inequitable conditions, and if the countries of origin asked for them.

To date only two artifacts have been returned. Senegal received a sword and scabbard belonging to a religious figure from the 19th century, while Benin is set to receive 26 artifacts belonging to the former Kingdom of Dahomey after the French Senate unanimously voted for its return.

Diyabanza says their acts in the museum are peaceful. “We do not ask for the authorization of a thief to recover what he has stolen from us, we act the way we do because it is a question of defending our right to self-determination and protecting our cultural and religious wealth.”

An official report in France stated that art taken by force from countries of origins should be returned. Nothing much has happened. Source| Wikimedia.

His opinion is that French institutions were built along racial supremacy and former French president Charles de Gaulle was its main precursor when he encouraged a policy that newly independent African countries should continue to finance French policies which destabilized a lot of Francophone countries.

“I am encouraged that Algeria got back the skulls of its liberation fighters, Ethiopia got back the Askum Obelisk after 68 years in Italy, and the African Union is now actively talking about restitution. Some Peruvians are working with us to try and recover some of the gold plundered by the Spanish Conquistadors while the Netherlands is considering restitution,” he says.

The Congolese national resides in Paris and says he doesn’t need the authorization of a thief to take back what was stolen from Africa. Source | Mwazulu Diyabanza.

Asked about the situation back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he says things are at a standstill because of competing interests while millions have been killed and displaced. He says that his country needs true patriots to solve the ills that are bedeviling his beautiful nation.

What is next for his art activism, I ask? “We are only getting started. All stolen art and artifacts must be returned to their rightful owners. These museums remind us of the shame of colonialism and they must held to account. This is our children’s heritage and we won’t rest until there is restitution.”

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