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Meet the Man Who is Taking African Artworks From European Museums By Force

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Mwazulu Diyabanza is a man on a crusade that has taken nearly a dozen African governments more than half a century but the 41-year-old believes his unique strategy would force the issue into Africa’s favor, in the least.

Diyabanza wants to reclaim for African countries, artworks that were looted by colonizers during the centuries of slavery and colonization. But he is simply not asking for these essential pieces of African history to be returned – he is urging like-minded Africans to storm European museums and take these artworks like he is doing.

He leads a new brand of Pan-Africanist struggle that does not have the time or patience for politeness. The focus is on the artworks, an aspect of African history Diyabanza associates with the philosophical and historical reflections of the continent’s peoples.

Before the world would take notice of Black Lives Matter protests that came up in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Diyabanza was already sounding the trumpet on his brand of Pan-Africanism. However, the global BLM movement breathed into Diyabanza’s own little cause, invigoration.

France alone holds about 90,000 artworks collected from African colonies over 300 years. Most of these were ill-gotten spoils of war and recouped after colonialists militantly bully native peoples.

Others were yet bought for ridiculously low amounts. For instance, masks brought in 1932 from present-day Mali’s Ségou region were bought for seven francs, according to a report by art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr, the price of a dozen eggs at the time. In France, those who brought the Ségou masks sold them for 200 francs, nearly 30 times the amount the masks were bought.

How could art traders get away with that? The same way those who stole the artworks did: an uneven relationship between Africans and Europeans girded by the threat and actuality of violence.

The aforementioned report by Savoy and Sarr was commissioned in 2017 by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. The report, considered in Europe a landmark study of the general situation, concluded that in cases where African governments want back artworks that was looted, France had to return these.

The conclusion was praised by countries in Africa, however, its implementation has dragged. France and other European countries that have expressed interest in returning some artworks have said African museums may not be well-equipped to receive many ancient and fragile pieces.

France has, in the meantime, agreed to return 26 artworks to Benin in what is the most significant commitment since the report came out in 2018. But the pace and the terms on which restitution is happening does not please Diyabanza.

“We believe that it is completely outdated, inappropriate and disrespectful that the Western nations, while the African peoples have acceded to their sovereignty, have not themselves decided to return to Africa what belongs to it,” Diyabanza told Radio Canada.

In June of this year, Diyabanza led a team of other activists to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to reclaim an ancient funeral staff from today’s Chad. Diyabanza and his cohorts streamed the whole encounter online and he was seen and heard telling those who had come to see the artworks, “We are taking it [the staff] home.

He had undertaken similar measures in Belgium, Netherlands and Marseille, France. His philosophy of action was replicated by another group in Netherlands in September.

Now, French authorities hold Diyabanza and others in custody. According to their counsel, the accused activists face up to 10 years in prison as well as a fine of more than $175,00.

Even in his present situation, Diyabanza made the case in court that he took the first step that colonized peoples of Africa and Latin America should be taking. His eagerness to connect his activism to the heritage of European colonialist exploitation has been the most magnetic aspect of Diyabanza’s popularity.

Diyabanza was born in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was a Belgian colony. When Diyabanza notes on his website that he seeks the “emancipation of black men and women from the yoke of Arab-Western domination and imperialism”, it is easy to see how a child of troubled DRC can weaponize their first-hand experiences of exploitation and underdevelopment to fight for some sense of fairness.

Although he knew his approach – which he calls active diplomacy – was bound to ruffle feathers, Diyabanza seems like a man who expected his current troubles. And if his troubles could awaken the passions of a million more Africans to accelerate the restitution of Africa’s artworks, he would have done his work.