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This September, Isaiah Ogundele and Mwazulu Diyabanza were brought to trial for separate acts of protest calling for the repatriation of African artifacts held by European museums. On September 18, a London court convicted Ogundele in absentia for “threatening/abusive/insulting words or behavior with the intent to cause harassment, alarm, or distress” during a protest at the Museum of London Docklands. On September 30, Congo-born activist Diyabanza and four of his fellow members of the Pan-African group Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux stood trial in Paris on charges of attempted theft for an action staged at the city’s Quai Branly Museum. A verdict is scheduled for October 14.
On June 12, Diyabanza, who is a spokesperson for Unité Dignité Courage, led a group of four people in a live-streamed protest at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, an institution notorious for its collection of artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa. Diyabanza’s companions filmed him giving a speech about the need to reclaim property plundered from Africa during the colonial period, in which he noted that the museum was financially profiting off of these thefts. “Today, we are recuperating what is ours,” he said in the livestream.
Diyabanza removed a 19th-century funerary post, made in modern-day Chad or Sudan, from where it was installed in the gallery. He then attempted to leave the museum with the pole with the stated goal of repatriating it to Africa, but was apprehended by museum security. The protest would not be his last in this vein: in July, he took a sword from the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Native American Arts in Marseille, and in mid-September, he took a statue from the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal in the Netherlands.
In response to being charged with the attempted theft of an African artifact from the Quai Branly, Diyabanza in turn accused the French government of theft. He defended the act as a political statement, saying that he had no intention of actually stealing the object.
In the courtroom this week, it wasn’t only Diyabanza’s protest that was under discussion, but also the broader issue of repatriation itself. Yves Goulard, a lawyer for Quai Branly, said that the protest was aggressive and unnecessary, as France and Africa are currently in conversation regarding the need for large-scale restitution. Hakim Chergui, a defense lawyer, argued that sweeping repatriation should have occurred long ago.
Six months prior to Diyabanza’s action at the Quai Branly, Isaiah Ogundele raised objections to colonial displays at the Museum of London Docklands. On January 29, Ogundele visited the permanent exhibition London, Sugar, & Slavery at the institution, which is dedicated to telling the history of London’s ports and docks, including their role in the transatlantic slave trade. The exhibition featured two Benin Bronzes — a leopard-shaped vessel from the 16th century and a brass plaque from the 16th or 17th century — and two Ife replica pieces on long-term loan from the British Museum since 2008. Ogundele reportedly knocked over several statues in a bid to seize them and return them to their country of origin, while shouting at museum staff.
Ogundele failed to show up for his trial; the Metropolitan Police are currently attempting to locate him. Citing solidarity with Ogundele, Diyabanza told artnet News:
It is a disgrace to the supposedly democratic monarchy of Great Britain to condemn someone for peacefully expressing their opinions. The British judiciary has just rallied without any resistance behind the injunctions of an oligarchy that refuses to see Africa gain access to its cultural heritage and priceless heritage.
Onyekachi Wambu, Executive Director of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), said of Ogundele’s trial: “Judging by the evidence given in court, what the young man needed was additional support to help with his welfare, not criminalization.”
“Attempts to criminalize those participating in these campaigns should be avoided at all costs, not least when we consider the initial violent and murderous circumstances in which these collections were acquired,” Wambu continued. “Criminalizing the descendants of those original victims intensifies the original crimes.”