On Friday, amid Black Lives Matter protests in the French capital, activists attempted to seize a 19th-century African funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris because “most of the works were taken during colonialism and we want justice.” The group was arrested by security before it could leave the building, and the activists will appear in Paris court this September.
The demonstration was led by African activist Mwazulu Diyabanza and the protest group Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux, which “fights for the freedom and transformation of Africa.” The theft was documented in a 30-minute video posted online. Security stopped the activists from bringing the pole outside the museum.
“The names at the entrance of this museum are the names of colonizers who pillaged the art that is now here,” Diyabanza said in the video as he grabbed the pole, which originally belonged to the Bari people of South Sudan. “These items were pillaged between 1880 and 1960 under colonialism.”
Diyabanza was released from police custody over the weekend. He and his group are barred from leaving France until his court date, and he is currently banned from museum premises. In a statement, the French Ministry of Culture “strongly” condemned the attempted theft, calling it “the instrumentalisation of heritage for political purposes.”
The demonstration at the Quai Branly comes amid global protests over anti-Black racism and reignited debate over the restitution of looted artworks in Western museums from the African continent. In 2018, two academic reports commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended the immediate reparation of African artifacts taken from the continent by European colonizers. A year after the report, Macron pledged to return 26 significant artworks looted from Benin “without delay” by 2021. The objects are still held in the collection of the Quai Branly, which opened in 2006 as a showcase of nearly 70,000 artifacts from France’s former colonies.
In an interview with the New York Times in June, the newly appointed president of the Quai Branly, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, called the repatriation reports “very militant,” adding, “I’m not in favor of objects being sent out into the world and left to rot.”