Last week, a group of protesters attempted to seize a 19th-century African funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris.
Congo-born artist Mwazulu Diyabanza led the demonstration on behalf of Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux, which bills itself as a “pan-African organization [that] fights for the freedom and transformation of Africa,” according to Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper. The group says it organized the protest because “most of the works were taken during colonialism and we want justice.”
The failed repatriation attempt arrived amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world, as well as growing calls for countries with colonial pasts to return objects to their places of origin—a daunting demand for the Quai Branly, which houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts from non-European cultures.
In a 30-minute video of the demonstration, Diyabanza argues that European museums have long profited off of stolen artworks like the Bari funeral pole. The recording shows Diyabanza and another protester removing the pole from its display and walking through the museum while discussing the reasoning behind their actions. Museum officials stopped the activists before they could leave with the artifact.
“It’s wealth that belongs to us, and deserves to be brought back,” says Diyabanza in the video, as quoted by the Associated Press. “I will bring to Africa what was taken.”
The five protesters involved were arrested by authorities and jailed. They have since been released, reports Kate Brown for artnet News, and are set to be tried in September. If found guilty, the group could face up to seven years of imprisonment and a €100,000 fine (around $112,000 USD).
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to prioritize the repatriation of objects taken from Africa by soldiers, administrators and explorers between the 19th century and the 1960s. The following year, a report commissioned by Macron recommended that objects be returned if countries requested them.
As Farah Nayeri reported for the New York Times in November 2018, the survey outlined a three-pronged plan for repatriation: Return “largely symbolic” objects long requested by African countries, collaborate with African officials to take inventories of French museums’ collections and encourage nations that have not yet made claims to do so.
“The process of restitution should not be limited in time,” the report added.
The Quai Branly’s collections include at least 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, according to artnet News. The museum acquired around two-thirds of these artifacts during the colonial period.
Since Macron’s announcement, just one object held by the Quai Branly—a 19th-century saber taken from what is now Mali—has been returned to its original home.
After the protest, French Culture Minister Franck Riester told reporters that he “condemns with the utmost firmness these acts which damage heritage.”
“While the debate on the restitution of works from the African continent is perfectly legitimate,” he added, “it can in no way justify this type of action.”
Earlier this month, the Quai Branly’s new president, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, told the New York Times’ Nayeri that the museum has been reviewing its collections to identify potentially looted artifacts. But few actually meet that definition, he said; instead, many were gifts offered by locals or brought back to France by missionaries.
As a result of the 2018 report, 26 objects from the Quai Branly are set to be returned to Benin by the end of 2021. Moving forward, Kasarhérou said that he would prefer restitution requests be considered on a case-by-case basis. The “very militant” report “cannot be a blueprint for policy,” he added.
The funeral pole at the center of last week’s demonstration was returned to the museum without sustaining significant damage. Any restoration work required will be completed as soon as possible.
“We expected this,” said Diyanbanza in a video filmed after he was released from jail. “These goods and the money accrued during their exhibition must be returned.”
Speaking with artnet News, the activist observed, “This act is the trigger for other powerful actions for the restitution of our stolen, looted and plundered goods.”
Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux’s brazen attempt to reclaim the Bari artifact unfolded at a time when countries around the world are facing a reckoning over the fate of public works honoring slaveholders and other controversial individuals. In France, the government protects statues of such historical figures even as it seeks proposals for a memorial to victims of slavery.
Addressing the nation in a televised speech last weekend, Macron stated that “the [French] republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history. ... [I]t will not take down any statue.”