Four activists, including Mwazulu Diyabanza, have been acquitted by a French court for theft charges they accrued in relation to a July 30th demonstration at the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Native American Arts (Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens) in Marseilles. The activists are part of the Multicultural Anti-Spoliation Front, a newly founded organization, which seeks the return of cultural artefacts and objects taken during periods of colonialism.
The demonstration was carried out on July 30th, when the four activists went to the Marseilles museum, where Diyabanza removed an ivory ceremonial spear and headed to the museum’s courtyard. The entire protest was live-streamed as Diyabanza denounced looting, carried out during colonialism, that has seen African works scattered around the world. Diyabanza remained in the courtyard to wait for police, the spear was promptly retrieved by museum staff.
The men were cleared of their charges on November 17th, just weeks after Diyabanza appeared in court for another demonstration of similar nature that took place at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The activists see the court’s decision as a legitimizing force for their cause.
Olivia Betoe Bi Elvie and Mbeko Tabula successfully argued in favour of the men in court stating that they exercised their right to demonstrate and use of free speech. They also called into question the legitimacy of the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Native American Arts’ ownership of the spear citing the 2017 vow that French president Emmanuel Macron made to return works of cultural significance to their home countries.
French prosecutor Nicolas Ruby, though, argued that the activists should be punished in an effort to stifle future such demonstrations. “Otherwise,” Ruby reported claimed, “we will see Italians come to the Louvre to collect [Veronese’s] The Wedding Feast at Cana or the Egyptians leaving with the mummies.” Ruby is now in the process of appealing the acquittal.
In October, Diyabanza was handed down a €2,000 fine for the Quai Branly Museum incident. For that encounter, Diyabanza could have been fined as much as €150,000 and spent as long as a decade behind bars. The activist is in the process of appealing the fine.
This week’s trial is not the end of the line for Diyabanza, either. On December 3rd, Diyabanza will appear in court again in Paris for a protest held at the Louvre in late October. He has also held demonstrations at the Afrika Museum in the Netherlands shortly before the Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum voiced support for returning artworks held by the country that are the product of colonialism. Diyabanza and the Multicultural Anti-Spoliation Front intend to hold a press conference in Paris before heading back to Switzerland.
“It is no longer a secret to anyone that we want to bring together all the clans and peoples deprived of their heritage and cultural patrimony with the objective of obtaining a UN resolution forcing Western countries and kingdoms to return everything they have taken from us by force and without any conditions,” Diyabanza told Artnet News. “We won in the ring and according to the rules of a game not decreed by us.”