France Wonders: Who Owns Colonial Art?

2020/10/05 18:20

Today's Vocabulary

1. prosecutor (n)
a legal official who accuses someone of committing a crime, especially in a law court 

2. court (n)
a place where trials and other legal cases happen, or the people present in such a place, especially the officials and those deciding if someone is guilty

3. activist (n) 
a person who believes strongly in political or social change and takes part in activities such as public protests to try to make this happen

4. trial (n) 
the hearing of statements and showing of objects, etc. in a law court to judge if a person is guilty of a crime or to decide a case or a legal matter

5. protest (n) 
a strong complaint expressing disagreement, disapproval, or opposition

6. liberation (n)
an occasion when something or someone is released or made free

France Wonders: Who Owns Colonial Art?

Is taking African artwork from a European museum a political act, or a criminal one? That is the question a French court is considering this week at the trial of a Congolese activist who wants his country’s art returned.

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds thousands of artworks from former colonies in African and Asia. Many of the valuable artworks were taken by colonial officials and brought to French museums.

Congo-born Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and four other activists are facing trial for attempted stealing. They tried to remove a 19th century African funeral pole from the museum. In June, they livestreamed the act on Facebook which they said was a protest. Guards quickly stopped them.

At the trial, however, behind every question and answer were the bigger questions. How should former colonial rulers make up for their mistakes? Who really “owns” the artworks? The questions took on new urgency after this year’s international protests against racial injustice.

Diyabanza defended what he called a “political act.” He said Africans, Latin Americans and other colonized countries should take back their treasures. “We are the legitimate heirs of these works,” he said. But he said he was not trying to take the art, instead. The aim was to mark the symbolism of the liberation of these works.”

The judge asked the activists why they thought they had the right to take the law into their own hands. He said that the trial was about taking the funeral pole. He said his court was not able to judge France’s acts as a colonial ruler.

Museum lawyer Yvon Goutal argued that, because of the discussions between France and African governments, “there is no need for this political act.” The French state “is very committed to this, and serious,” he said. The prosecutor said the activists should have made their point in a more peaceful way.

So far, France has agreed to return 26 works of African art.


  1. Do you think any artists who are around now will be remembered in 50 years?
  2. What was the last art gallery you went to? What did you think of it?
  3. Is contemporary art in your country too influenced by other countries?

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

Pablo Picasso