A French Court Acquits Four Anti-Colonial Activists Who Removed a Spear From a Museum, Saying the Gesture Counts as Free Speech

The Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza says the verdict sets an encouraging precedent.

France, Marseille, eglise et musee de la Vielle Charité. Photo by Michel RENAUDEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
France, Marseille, eglise et musee de la Vielle Charité. Photo by Michel RENAUDEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

A French court has cleared four activists of theft charges after they removed a spear from the city’s Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts over the summer to raise awareness of the importance of restitution and protest French museums’ holding of African heritage.

On July 30, accompanied by three members of the newly formed activist collective Multicultural Anti-Spoliation Front, the Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza—who has gained an international profile for his theatrical actions in museums across Europe—lifted a ceremonial ivory spear from its display. He proceeded to carry it into the museum’s courtyard, where he denounced the cultural “plunder” of African heritage dating back to the colonial era. He waited for the police to arrive, at which point the spear was returned to the museum. The entire action was livestreamed on social media. 

Marseille’s High Court acquitted all four activists on Tuesday, November 17. Diyabanza tells Artnet News that the court’s verdict lends legitimacy to the group’s methods of what he calls “activist diplomacy.” He hopes that the precedent will help clear their previous criminal records and ward off future lawsuits.

In court, the lawyers for the defense, Olivia Betoe Bi Evie and Mbeko Tabula, stressed the activist nature of the incident and insisted it was part of the participants’ right to demonstrate, according to the local paper La Marseillaise. (At one point, Tabula asked, “Do you know any thieves who wait for the police?”) The lawyers also contested the museum’s claim of ownership of the object, referencing French president Emmanuel Macron’s historic 2017 pledge to move toward the restitution of African heritage in French national collections. 

While prosecutor Nicolas Ruby recognized the political nature of the act, he stressed the need to sanction the group in order to deter similar actions in the future. “Otherwise, we will see Italians come to the Louvre to collect [Veronese’s] The Wedding Feast at Cana or the Egyptians leaving with the mummies,” he reportedly said.

The prosecutor recommended a prison sentence of between four and eight months. He is now appealing the court’s decision to acquit.

“From a political point of view, we explained to the court the motivations and especially the intentions that we have for this action,” Diyabanza tells Artnet News. “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.” 

In October, Diyabanza avoided a hefty jail sentence and a €150,000 fine for a similar action carried out at the quai Branly museum in Paris, but was convicted of attempted theft and issued a smaller €1,000 fine, which he is appealing. He faces trial for another action at the Louvre on December 3.

Encouraged by the latest victory, Diyabanza says the Multicultural Anti-Spoliation Front will move into a “very political” phase in the coming days. “We won in the ring and according to the rules of a game not decreed by us,” he says. The group plans to declare its vision at a press conference in Paris before heading to Switzerland for its next action.

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