Activists Pushing Back Against European Possession of African Art Appear in Court

Some of the Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Within the last couple of years, numerous debates and proposals surrounding the return of looted artwork from European museums to their countries of origin have sprung up amongst the fine arts community. As of 2020, French senators have approved a bill that will guarantee the eventual transport of items which currently sit in the Quai Branly Museum to their home in Benin, but not every ongoing conflict has been resolved. A group of activists, including the Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, have recently run afoul of the law by attempting to take various African artifacts from different museums in acts of protest against colonial-era looting. On Tuesday, a group of these activists appeared in court in Gelderland, a Dutch province of the Netherlands.

Specifically, the activists face fines of €1,000 and €500 on charges of attempting to steal a Congolese statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal. However, the activist Mwazulu Diyabanza Siwa Lemba told DutchNews.nl that the group’s motivations were not at all personal, but rather, had to do with the preservation of heritage. “I am accused of having stolen a statue when I actually came to take back what belongs to us and what was taken from us from force,” Lemba said. “All we did was to access our cultural heritage. But we know there’s apparently a political desire in Europe to stay silent and to keep us quiet on this subject.”

Indeed, when the group of activists attempted to protest at the Quai Branly by removing a 19th-century African funeral pole from its display plinth, French officials complained that this act disrupted the government’s ongoing efforts to make restitution happen legally and without incident.

“Four museums that are united in France have made a report saying everything that was taken by force should be given back,” Lemba continued in his interview with DutchNews.nl“This is progress for us. The government and museum authorities in Holland have understood the same thing. This is what motivated our action, to shake things up and accelerate the process. These works were stolen by military forces from Holland, Portugal, England, France. We want this art to be restituted because it is our heritage, and belongs to the people of Africa, the governments, and the royal families.” Activists Pushing Back Against European Possession of African Art Appear in Court