This Friday, June 12, the Quai Branly Museum was the scene of an unprecedented incident. Five men of African origin tore down an exposed funerary pole to denounce, in their words, “Africa’s dispossession of its riches”. A new act in the soap opera is the restitution of African art objects. The scene was relayed live on social networks.
From words to deeds
The Musée du Quai Branly houses in its premises the main collection of African primary arts in France. According to the Sarr-Savoy report published in 2018, this collection brings together more than 50,000 unique pieces brought back during exploration missions of the continent and during colonization. A fact that is not really to the liking of all visitors, but also of a growing number of activists and intellectuals from all parts of the continent who are campaigning for the pure and simple return of these objects to their countries of origin.
You only have to consult the Guestbook of the Parisian museum to realize this. Numerous messages of the type: “Return his works to Africa” are indeed present there. However, no major incident had been recorded until now. But on this June 12, things went further. Five men unsealed a nineteenth-century Bari funeral post from Chad or Sudan that was on display in one of the museum’s rooms.
A video posted live on social networks
Wishing to give their act all its impact, the respondents broadcast a video of the scene, live on Facebook. In the minutes that followed, a video was posted on YouTube by the five respondents. It shows one of them, a Congolese national, with the pole torn out of his hand, shouting: “These goods were stolen from us during colonization. We’re leaving with our property, we’re taking it back home,” “We’ve decided to get back what belongs to us. The group was immobilized by the museum’s security guards before being arrested a few minutes later by the police.
Restitution of African art objects, a long and divisive debate
The video has been widely relayed on the pages of the black peoples’ defense movements, with various appreciations. On the side of the French State, the reaction of the Minister of Culture was not long in coming. In an official communiqué, Franck Rister strongly condemned these acts. Without rejecting the legitimacy of the debate surrounding the restitution of works of art from the continent, he affirmed that nothing can justify this type of action. In his communiqué, the minister also denounced the instrumentalization of art for political purposes and confirmed that these pieces are indeed part of French heritage.
It should be recalled that the debate on the restitution of African art objects was launched in 2017 by President Emmanuel Macron during a trip to Ouagadougou. Since then, various actions have been taken to put in place a legal and logistical mechanism to make it a reality. However, in concrete terms, no return has yet taken place and no definitive agenda has yet been set in this regard.
The Quai Branly Museum filed a complaint against the individuals involved and an investigation was opened by the police. They were held in police custody for a few hours and then released under judicial supervision. The Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office decided to file charges against them for “Attempted theft of a classified personal property during a meeting”. The trial is scheduled for next September.