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France Wonders: Who Owns Colonial Art?


FILE - A visitor looks at two heads of a royal ancestor from the former Benin Kingdom displayed at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France, Nov. 23, 2018.
France Wonders: Who Owns Colonial Art?
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Is taking African artwork from a European museum a political act, or a criminal one? That is the question a French court is considering this week at the trial of a Congolese activist who wants his country’s art returned.

"It belongs to us!" shouted a Black woman watching the trial. She began to cry and then left the trial after a museum lawyer said the art belongs to the French state.

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds thousands of artworks from former colonies in Africa and Asia. Many of the valuable artworks were taken by colonial officials and brought to French museums.

Congo-born Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and four other activists are facing trial for attempted stealing. They tried to remove a 19th century African funeral pole from the museum. In June, they livestreamed the act on Facebook which they said was a protest. Guards quickly stopped them.

The activists argue that they never planned to steal the work. They wanted to call attention to where it came from, they said.

At the trial, however, behind every question and answer were the bigger questions. How should former colonial rulers make up for their mistakes? Who really “owns” the artworks?

The questions took on new urgency after this year's international protests against racial injustice.

Diyabanza saw an opportunity. In the past few months, he has livestreamed three museum protests in Paris, Marseille and the Netherlands.

French officials were very angry about the livestream. They said it threatens the current negotiations with African countries begun by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 for legal, organized restitution efforts.

If found guilty of attempted group stealing of the art, Diyabanza could receive up to 10 years in prison and a fine of about $175,000. However, the lawyer for the French state did not ask for prison time. He asked for small fines. A decision on the case is expected on October 14.

Diyabanza defended what he called a "political act." He said Africans, Latin Americans and other colonized countries should take back their treasures.

He accuses European museums of making a lot of money from artworks taken from now-poor countries like Congo. He said the funeral pole belongs to Chad and should be returned.

"We are the legitimate heirs of these works," he said. But he said he was not trying to take the art, instead…The aim was to mark the symbolism of the liberation of these works."

The judge asked the activists why they thought they had the right to take the law into their own hands. He said that the trial was about taking the funeral pole. He said his court was not able to judge France's acts as a colonial ruler.

Museum lawyer Yvon Goutal argued that, because of the discussions between France and African governments, "there is no need for this political act." The French state "is very committed to this, and serious,” he said. The prosecutor said the activists should have made their point in a more peaceful way.

`The Quai Branly Museum sits on the banks of the Seine River near the Eiffel Tower. It was built under former French President Jacques Chirac to showcase non-European art, most from former French colonies. It and some other French museums have about 90,000 works.

So far, France has agreed to return 26 works of African art.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words In This Story

pole– n.a long, straight piece of wood or other material that often is placed so it stands straight up

livestream– v.to video something as it happens and to show it on social media

restitution– n.to give back something that was lost or stolen, or to pay someone for damage or problems they have had

legitimate –adj.permitted by law or rules

heir –n.a person who has the legal right to receive the property of someone who dies

symbolism –n.the use of symbols to express or represent ideas or qualities

prosecutor– n. a lawyer who represents a government in a court and seeks punishment for someone accused of a crime

skull– n. the structure of bones that form the head and face

trophy– n. an object that is given as a prize for winning a competition

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