Mwazulu Diyabanza, the Robin Hood of Restitution Activism, Has Been Fined for Removing a Congolese Funerary Statue From a Dutch Museum

Diyabanza was banned from entering museums, but is allowed to meet with museum directors.

Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza in court in Paris on September 30. Photo courtesy of Mwazulu Diyabanza.
Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza in court in Paris on September 30. Photo courtesy of Mwazulu Diyabanza.

The restitution activist Mwazulu Diyabanza and four others were sentenced today, January 12, in the Netherlands in a closely watched trial following their removal of a Congolese funerary statue from the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal last September, an act they recorded on Facebook Live.

The group, which was tried in the Dutch city of Arnhem, was caught “red-handed” with the funerary object outside of the museum on September 10, according to Dutch prosecutors, who noted that the incident was intended as “a protest against the possession and display of statues and art stolen in Africa in the past.”

Diyabanza, who has earned a reputation for carrying out similar acts in France, was fined €250 and given a two-month suspended prison sentence, including two years probation.

Two women who filmed the event and two men who assisted Diyabanza in removing the object were each fined €100 and given one-month suspended prison sentences and two years probation. The five were also banned from entering the Africa Museum for three years—but Diyabanza is allowed to meet with directors.

Diyabanza said the judge acknowledged that “there was no intention of theft in my approach,” Diyabanza tells Artnet News. “This is what should logically lead to an acquittal. But subjected all to the political will, they find all the same the legal acrobatics to condemn me.”

In a statement, the Africa Museum that it “understands the motives of the activists, but disapproves of the way in which they made their statement.” It added that its provenance work will be “intensified significantly” in the coming years.

“We came to recuperate what is rightfully ours,” Diyabanza said in the live video of the action, which was later posted to Facebook. “They have pillaged, humiliated, stolen,” he said, referring to European colonial powers. Diyabanza did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

Beginning last summer, Diyabanza carried out a string of similar actions at the Louvre and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in an attempt to “re-take” African art, which in many cases was acquired through violent looting, and return it to his home continent.

Last year, Diyabanza was fined €5,000 and given a deferred prison term after removing an object from a display case at the Louvre and was acquitted in Marseilles for a similar act at the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts. He was also fined for removing a funerary object from the Musée du quai Branly in June 2020.

He and fellow activists are hoping to accelerate restitution debates in countries like France and Belgium, where some progress has been made on returning African heritage to countries on the continent.

In October this year, a committee in the Netherlands published a report saying that objects that were looted should be restituted. The Dutch government is expected to issue an official response later this year.

“European governments didn’t just want to steal our possessions but to break our identities to assimilate us and colonize us,” he told Dutch news ahead of the trial. “We are determined to get back what has been taken from us.”

Diyabanza has no pending trials, but has shown no signs of backing down. “In the 10 years to come, those who will come in this fight will no longer be condemned,” he told Artnet News.

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