June 16, 2020 at 11:13 am

The lobby of the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Photo: Ninara/Flickr.

The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris—an ethnographic institution that houses seventy thousand artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa—was nearly robbed on Friday when a group of men attempted to take a nineteenth-century funerary object from an exhibition of works from the museum’s permanent collection. According to Le Monde, the culprits of the foiled heist claim they were not going to keep the artifact for personal gain, but were instead trying to return it to Africa.

The five activists—members of Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux, an organization that describes itself as pan-African and claims to “fight for the freedom and transformation of Africa”—filmed the event, a thirty-minute clip of which shows Mwazulu Diyabanza, a national of the Democratic Republic of Congo, removing a funerary pole from its display and carrying it through the institution before encountering museum security.

“The names at the entrance of this museum are the names of colonizers who pillaged the art that is now here,” Diyabanza said in the video. “These items were pillaged between 1880 and 1960 under colonialism. . . . We have decided to recover what belongs to us!” Diyabanza and his conspirators were arrested and charged with attempted theft. According to a GoFundMe account that was launched to raise more than 100,000 euros for the group’s defense, the activists face seven years imprisonment if convicted, as well as a heavy fine.

The incident occurred amid worldwide protests against police violence and a growing movement against statues of colonialists, imperialists, slave traders, and others that glorify white supremacism. The ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sparked renewed calls for cultural institutions to restitute looted objects. French president Emmanuel Macron has previously vowed to return colonial-era works to the continent, and Musée du Quai Branly director Emmanuel Kasarhérou, who assumed the museum’s top post earlier this year, told the New York Times that restitution requests would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

The activists’ decision to accelerate the restitution process by taking matters into their own hands has been condemned by French culture minister Franck Riester, who said in a statement: “While the debate on the restitution of works from the African continent is perfectly legitimate, it can in no way justify this type of action.” The funerary pole does not appear to have been damaged, but Riester said that its condition will be assessed by experts and any necessary restorations will be immediately carried out. The men will be tried by a Paris court in September.

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