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‘It belongs to us!’: Tense French trial over colonial art

Diyabanza seized on that mood and has staged three livestreamed museum protests in recent months — in Paris, Marseille and the Netherlands.

French officials denounced the Quai Branly incident, saying it threatens ongoing negotiations with African countries launched by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 for legal, organised restitution efforts.

Wooden royal statues of the Dahomey kingdom , today's Benin, on display at Quai Branly museum in Paris.

Wooden royal statues of the Dahomey kingdom , today’s Benin, on display at Quai Branly museum in Paris.Credit:AP

If convicted of attempted group theft of a historical object, Diyabanza could face up to 10 years in prison and a €150,000 fine ($245,000). However, the lawyer for the French state did not ask for prison time, demanding only modest fines. A verdict is scheduled October 14.

Diyabanza defended what he called a “political act” and said it’s about time that Africans, Latin Americans and other colonised communities take back ill-gotten treasures. He accuses European museums of making millions on artworks taken from now-impoverished countries like Congo, and said the pole, which came from current-day Chad, should be among works returned to Africa.

“We are the legitimate heirs of these works,” he said. But he insisted that “appropriation wasn’t my goal. … The aim was to mark the symbolism of the liberation of these works.”

The presiding judge asked the activists why they thought they had the right to take the law into their own hands. He insisted that the trial should focus on the specific funeral pole incident and that his court wasn’t competent to judge France’s colonial era as a whole.

Quai Branly lawyer Yvon Goutal argued that because of the discussions underway between France and African governments, “there is no need for this political act.” The French state “is very committed to this, and serious” about following through, he said. The prosecutor said the activists should have made their point via more peaceful means.

Defence lawyer Hakim Chergui argued that it shouldn’t have taken this many decades after African countries’ independence to settle the issue. He choked up when talking about the skulls of Algerian 19th century resistance fighters long held as trophies in a French museum and returned to his native Algeria this year.

“There is a frustration in the population that is growing, growing, growing,” he said, calling Wednesday’s proceedings “a trial of the colonial continuum.”

Applause and boos periodically interrupted the proceedings. A crowd of supporters shouted in anger at not being able to enter the small, socially distanced courtroom, and judges sent Diyabanza to calm them down.

The Quai Branly Museum, on the banks of the Seine River near the Eiffel Tower, was built under former French President Jacques Chirac to showcase non-European art, notably from ex-French colonies.

A 2018 study commissioned by Macron recommended that French museums give back works that were taken without consent, if African countries request them. So far, France is preparing to give back 26 works of African art — out of some 90,000 works believed held in French museums, most in the Quai Branly.

AP

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