The man who steals from Europe's museums

Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza fights to bring back African heritage looted during colonialism

4 min
Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza in a recent picture.

Barcelona500 metres from the Eiffel Tower and next to the Seine River is the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. It opened in 2006 and is full of treasures. Much of the art and heritage of the former French colonies is on display: objects from Oceania, Asia, America and, above all, Africa. You can find, for example, seventy thousand collector's items from sub-Saharan Africa. From sculptures and masks from present-day Burkina Faso or Senegal to paintings that once decorated church walls in Cameroon or Ethiopia. Nearly 1.5 million people visit the museum every year, making it one of the most visited museums of its kind in the world.

On 12 June, 2020, Mwazulu Diyabanza, a 42-year-old Congolese activist, arrived at the museum and bought a ticket. Accompanied by four other men, he spent a few minutes observing and studying the works on display. Suddenly, he began to shout: "This wealth belongs to us and must be returned. I will take back to Africa what you have stolen from us". He then grabbed one of the objects - a 19th century burial stake from somewhere between Sudan and Chad - and tried to take it. Museum guards stopped him, but one of the activist's colleagues already had his mobile phone ready to broadcast it live on Facebook. "Museums in Europe get rich from objects that were violently taken away during the era of colonialism and slavery", he said as he struggled with the guards.

The scene would repeat itself over the next few months. In July, Mwazulu Diyabanza went to Marseille to visit the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens, where he also took one of the African objects on display until he was stopped by guards before he managed to leave the premises. A video on Facebook was posted too. And in September, the scene occurred in the African museum in the municipality of Berg en Dal in the Netherlands. In this case he did manage to get out on the street with a Congolese statue until he was arrested by the police. "We are not criminals, we are only fighting against those who stole from us", he justified himself to the police. An argument that has not saved him from being taken to court and even sentenced to pay a fine of 1,000 euros for his "attempted robbery" in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

For Mwazulu Diyabanza, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but came to France as a political refugee, there is one fact that pains him greatly: it is estimated that around 90% of African art is currently outside the continent. And most of this heritage rests in prestigious European museums or in private collections, also owned by Europeans. In his demands, the activist often asks himself, aloud, two questions: "Why do I have to pay the entrance fee to a museum on the other side of the world to see art that belongs to our people?" and "Why will the vast majority of Africans never be able to see the art of their ancestors?"

A historic debate

The debate over the restitution of African art and heritage, looted and decontextualised during the colonial era, is not new. However, in recent years it has gained momentum. Firstly, thanks to the growing number of Africanist organisations - such as the one led by Mwazulu Diyabanza himself - that are demanding the return of these objects to their countries of origin. And secondly, following an investigation commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in March 2018. The study was led by French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, and the conclusions they drew were blunt enough: they documented hundreds of thousands of works and objects "torn from their cultures of origin through colonial violence."

The work makes a historical review to recall that this looting was carried out mainly during the nineteenth century through military expeditions carried out by France, Belgium, England, the Netherlands or Germany that resulted in the acquisition by force of much of the cultural heritage of those peoples. According to the report, the most spectacular works became part of the great national galleries, such as the Louvre or the British Museum. Specific galleries were also built for this type of art. Other objects, on the other hand, were auctioned off and remained in the custody of wealthy families or military personnel who, over the years, handed them over to state museums.

The resulting figures are shocking: the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium has an estimated 180,000 items from the African continent; the Humboldt Forum in Berlin has 75,000; the British Museum has about 70,000. These are just a few examples. As a result, as African museum specialist Alain Godonou warned in 2007, "in general, national museums in African countries never have more than 3,000 cultural objects". Some governments, such as those of Senegal, Nigeria and Benin, have demanded the restitution of their heritage, but despite all the fine words, the loot has not arrived. And if it does, it comes in dribs and drabs.

African works of art in a museum in Paris.

The cost of plunder

"All this has taken a heavy toll on African countries", laments Mwazulu Diyabanza himself in a conversation with ARA. And he himself highlights two aspects: "Stealing the culture of African peoples was one more way of destroying African men and women, their spirit, their identity", says the activist, according to whom cultural plundering, added to the economic and political plundering resulting from colonisation, has prevented the African population from regaining the self-confidence to be able to look European societies in the eye. "Culture and heritage are the key to a society's progress".

He, like other African activists, also denounces the attack on historical truth. "The people who brought these works to European museums have always been treated as great heroes, philanthropic defenders of culture", he says. "The museums, which have become rich from our heritage, don't explain that these objects came here thanks to violence and looting". And he totally rejects the argument that is often used from the Old Continent to defend the fact that museums here should house the heritage - that it has been the way to preserve with conditions and security measures all these works of art: "African museums have been prepared to do the same for decades". He also recalls that the political instability that could have put them at risk often stems precisely from the period of colonisation.

Whatever the case, Mwazulu Diyabanza makes no secret of the fact that he will continue to enter European museums to recover "what was stolen from us". Until when? "Until the governments of Europe come to their senses and decide to return all these objects to their place of origin and, at the same time, compensate all those who have been harmed by so many years of exploitation and lies". The process promises to be difficult. And slow.