“Stop, policeman,” yells an agent hurrying out of the car to a man who is carrying a figure in his hands. “Give it to me,” orders the uniformed man, who then wife the man in question. The scene took place on September 10 outside the Museum of Africa, in the town of Berg en Dal (Netherlands), and the detainee is named Mwazulu Diyabanza Siwa Lemba. Congolese by birth, on his Twitter account he presents himself as “a pan-African trade unionist and spokesperson for the Yankanku organization, which means unity, dignity and value.”
With his gesture, filmed by four companions, also arrested, he intended to denounce the looting perpetrated by the colonization and return the piece, a funeral home and from the current Democratic Republic of Congo, to its true owners. “We are not criminals, but we fight against those who robbed us,” he says during the recording. The museum security service did not interrupt them to avoid an altercation and knowing that the forces of order were on their way. All five have been released, and although they are now leaving the country, they have vowed to return. Last June, they tried something similar at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which has an important collection of African art, and the case is in the hands of the French courts.
The incident at the Netherlands Museum of Africa is featured in footage posted live on Facebook, and later on YouTube, by the frustrated group of provocateurs themselves. Mwazulu Diyabanza justifies the symbolism of his actions saying that “we had to pay 15 euros to be here, a place that keeps African objects taken with violence during colonization and slavery; We will return them to your home. ” In a long speech in front of the exhibitor from whom he will later remove the effigy, he adds that this center was built by Catholic missionaries “who evangelized Africa with the intention of destroying the faith of our peoples, destroying their myths and beliefs; his spirituality and his soul ”.
Speaking in French, dressed in black, with a dark beret, and looking left and right to see if anyone catches their eye, Mwazulu Diyabanza states: “The Dutch and the Portuguese were the first, and then facilitated the arrival of French, British Belgians or Americans. They imposed their identity on us, and we did not ask for permission to recover what belongs to us ”. Then he takes the image, bought in 1968 by the religious from an art dealer, saying that it represents “the guardian of our soul and of African societies.” Once outside the museum, the break is spoiled because the barrier that closes the car park is down and they cannot continue by car. The five then decide to march on foot, always with the piece in their hands and without stopping filming, and that’s when two police vehicles block their way. Seconds before, they had been encouraged by shouting “Long live free Africa!”
With the sculpture already back, the management of the hall has indicated that Mwazulu Diyabanza claims to come from the same culture as the Congolese figure, and the activists “wanted to make a declaration of principles.” The Museum of Africa is part of the National Museum of World Cultures, an institution that includes the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) in Amsterdam, and the Volkenkunde (ethnological) Museum in Leiden. The trio is ready to analyze the origin of the art that appears in their collections, because they admit that about half of their joint collection, of some 368,000 pieces, is linked to the colonial past, and has arrived in different ways. Since these funds are now property of the State, their possible return depends on the Ministry of Culture.
Germany restored art stolen from Alaska Natives in 2018, and is also debating the future of looted African art exhibited in its museums. And in France, the president, Emmanuel Macron, defends the return of looted African objects to their countries of origin.
The Christian order that Mwazulu Diyabanza refers to in his proclamation is the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1703 by the French lawyer and later priest Claudio Poullart des Places. In 1848 it merged with the Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as explained on its website. Its members are the Spiritan Fathers, and in the Netherlands he opened a missionary museum in 1958, the Museum of Africa, with a collection based on objects collected by religious, who appreciated their cultural and spiritual value, along with purchases and donations. In 1987 the reconstruction of several African villages was added abroad.