“Our act aimed to erase the acts of indignity and disrespect of those who plundered our homes.”
Artist Mwazulu Diyabanza
Often European museums position themselves as preservers and protectors of art, culture and history, particularly as it relates to Africa. If you’re a betting person, you can bet your bottom dollar, as the old adage goes, that 99.9999% of these artifacts were not gifted to these museums, instead were looted from Africa, centuries ago, with no regard for the impact on the peoples or progeniture. Under recent fire is the Musee Du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac Africa Collections boasting 70,000 objects from “Sub-Sahara Africa…the first voyages of exploration to Africa, for example to the Congo…(where) the development of ethnography was accompanied from the 1930’s by field collection expeditions, one of the most well-known of which was the Dakar-Djibouti expedition. Also, from this period onwards, colonial administrators as well as collectors and merchants became major actors in the enrichment of the museum collections,” reads the Museum’s website. Really? The museum website further explains about the “democratization of the collection” emphasizing “one of the most important priorities of the museum” is ensuring access to the museum through “true collaboration” highlighting outreach to even people in hospitals and retirement homes. There is no mention of reaching out to Africans, from whom the items were stolen, even the millions of African migrants in France enduring racism. Seriously? You can steal OUR people’s artifacts then say you are committed to democratizing it for YOUR people, with a straight face?
Well Les Marrons Unis Dignes et Courageux, loosely translated in English meaning Unity, Dignity and Courage of the Browns, has no longer left this return of looted artifacts to the slow boat known as diplomacy. They are committed to African Nationalism emphasizing the recovery and re-appropriation for liberation and restoration of African wealth; and African Socialism towards the construction of African society based on African power and values. Their unapologetic mandate fuels the organization’s determination to get back Africa’s artifacts, by any means necessary. Mid-June, amidst Black Lives Matter protests, a real-life Black Panther type opening scene was played out by artist/activist from the Congo, Mwazulu Diyabanza, who tried to retrieve a looted 19th century African funeral pole. Obviously Diyabanza and fellow protestors arrested for the act knew they would not be able to walk out of the museum with their historic treasure, but risked arrest to make a point. They wanted to bring attention to one of the long list of heinous offences against Africans by the French and other European powers for that matter.
During the trial held in France on September 29th five arrested from the group remained defiant in the face of a charge of attempted theft. But it was not just five defiant defendants on trial but the horrible history of France, accused of looting a large collection of well over 90,000 ceremonial and artistic artifacts. Dubbed a “failed repatriation attempt” in the Smithsonian magazine, the prestigious US entity has also seen its fair share of protests including initial opposition to a RasTafari exhibition led by yours truly in early 2000’s. But that’s another story. Artist Diyabanza said, “Our act aimed to erase the acts of indignity and disrespect of those who plundered our homes.” It’s personal! Too often we treat these issues with diplomacy and decorum but after decades of discussions, met with vitriolic and condescending remarks from the French, often defending the “hosting” of these items, enough is enough.
It is high time for not only repatriation of Africa’s artifacts but reparations to help build state of the art museums and programs in Africa with enough funding and resources to “democratize”, ensuring access for all Africans especially in rural areas where many of these items have immense significance and purpose. While England holds many of Ethiopia’s treasures, France also has a few, which is an understatement and Ethiopians should remain vigilant for the return of the many treasures, holding these partner/donor countries accountable, without fear. There comes a time when the axiom, “stand for something or fall for anything” must be applied. This is about heritage as much as it is about the future. In a time when we grapple with manufactured discourse on identity rather than the celebration of diversity, the day will come when generations from now will ask what meant the most to us in the 21st century and what were we willing to sacrifice life and limb for. Future historians should be able to find a society led by vigilant and committed leaders who would not sit by instead they stood with artists, activist and academicians working unceasingly to retrieve our most precious historical items for posterity. Let us see if post Covid era Ethiopia and all African states will join arms to act as one voice to retrieve, protect and preserve our heritage and hence our dignity. Lights, camera, action…
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.