“Bandits into Militants:” Unlooting and the Legitimacy of Plundered Cultural Heritage Removal
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
Hailed by some as “the Robin Hood of Restitution Activism,” Mwazulu Diyabanza has developed an international reputation over the last two years for his impudently performative attempts to “steal” artifacts from high profile European museums, including the Louvre and the Musée du quai Branly. Citing growing calls for the repatriation of looted cultural artifacts held in Western museums, the Congolese activist has asserted that his actions stand in defiance of the objects’ misappropriation in museums and seek to catalyze restitution debates and, most importantly, action, given that such conversations over the last several years have produced an abundance of discourse but few returns. With an estimated 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s material heritage held in museums and galleries outside the continent, efforts to secure the return of plundered cultural patrimony have only intensified within a renewed global context of resistance sparked by the transnational racial justice protests of 2020, which ushered in a new era of contentious repatriation techniques and politics.
While some may consider Diyabanza to be a thief—indeed, the punishments he has received for his acts of protest have included fines, prison sentences, probation, and museum bans, which are consistent with punishments for theft—I argue that the ways in which his actions are self-articulated, as well as the ways in which certain strands of the public have engaged with his performances, signify the reparative dimension of his protest. While crime, and particularly theft, is often defined as deviance, loss, and rupture, what do we make of acts that have the explicit intent of repairing historic, structural forms of deviance, loss, and rupture, which have yet to be acknowledged and addressed? Far from being a product of criminality or criminal pathology, theft then becomes a political act through which resistance to conventional modes of possession and ownership is performed. By inverting the logic of criminality, Diyabanza remakes the museum—and indeed the Western art world more generally—as a space of inclusion; indeed, he signals to Black people, if only symbolically, their entitlements to their own heritage and the stories and histories bound within these entitlements.
In Africa’s Struggle for Its Art, Bénédicte Savoy charts more than six decades of disputes about the fate of European museums’ collections of African artifacts, extending the timeline of these debates well beyond what many in the field still believe to be a more recent phenomenon. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Scramble for Africa, in which the continent was carved up by European imperial regimes, an unfathomable number of the continent’s cultural antiquities were looted and transferred to Western museums and private collections, where the vast majority have remained. In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s decolonization movements and independence struggles across the continent, which saw the liberation of dozens of African countries from imperial rule, nations sought to establish their cultural sovereignty through calls for the return of their heritage. Yet after decades of not simply failed but intentionally thwarted attempts to secure the return of the continent’s heritage through “legitimate means,” which Savoy chronicles, Diyabanza’s efforts represent an apprehension of the methods and process of restitution on his terms. The systemic failure or, at the very least, lethargy of institutional restitution responses has provided Diyabanza with a license to transgress formal mechanisms and take matters into his own hands—the hands of the people—to pursue an ethic of repair. Savoy also notes the long history of popular discourse on the theft of colonially looted artwork. Savoy signifies how, from Wole Soyinka’s admission that he believed “foreign mercenaries” should “bring back” a Benin mask in “one swift, once-for-all-time, coordinated operation” during a 1970s debate about the restitution of the mask to Nigeria to the practice being the subject of popular films such as The Mask (1979), Invasion 1897 (2014), and most recently the blockbuster Black Panther (2018), this theft has become a source of intrigue across popular culture.
Criminality, and wrongdoing more generally, invokes questions about morality and the ways in which society and its legal code determine the legitimacy of certain types of behavior. Margaret Urban Walker (2006) has conceptualized the idea of “moral repair” to examine how humans grapple with instances of wrongdoing. She asks, “What ought I (or we) to do now […] after the page is blotted or torn by our own or others’ wrongdoing,” about the moments and spaces following moral transgression. “I am interested here in understanding how responses to moral wrongs can be ways to repair and sustain morality itself,” Walker explains. Yet how do we make sense of such a response if it is considered, at least juridically, to be a moral wrong itself? Walker invokes the notion of restorative justice, a concept that has been used in activist, policy, and intellectual spaces over the last two decades, as a method of repairing harm caused by wrongdoing. Many such conversations were born out of the various truth and reconciliation commissions that emerged in the aftermath of state crimes and terror, such as the South African truth and reconciliation commission, founded in 1995 in the wake of apartheid, and Australia’s truth-telling commission, formed in 2000 to address violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. “Looting” can be a fraught term, often bearing racialized inflections and undertones. Mac Ginty (2004) has suggested that referring to a behavior as “looting” is inherently pejorative and constitutes a rejection of the efforts of those who perform it to frame their acts of taking as justifiable or legitimate. Citing the work of Marsh et al (1978), he argues, “The possession and use of an ‘explanatory rhetoric’ denotes a social power and the ability to deploy conceptual resources that underline a moral and political code aligned with embedded norms of behaviour identified as acceptable or deviant.”
Among scholars who deemphasize the “looter’s” legal transgression, some underscore the moral and political significance of this type of theft, while others examine how looting upends beliefs about ownership and entitlements to property. As such, “looting” may be understood by some less as a criminal act and more as a reflection of society’s shifting moral and political landscape, as seen for example in urban communities’ responses to systemic police brutality as a way of signaling political frustration and mistrust. The “property outlaw,” according to Penalver and Katyal (2007), allows society to reevaluate and challenge how property entitlements are unjustly constructed and distributed. Faucon (2016) has demonstrated that such a figure reveals a breakdown in the predictable relationship between property owners and non-owners by rearranging property rights upon which the stability of our collective understanding of ownership relies. Advancing the concept of suspension theory—which she defines as a means of transferring goods from private to communal ownership in order to support those in the community most in need—Faucon argues that looting in some contexts signifies protest against society’s understanding of ownership and serves as a way of bringing about social and political change.
In Scammer’s Yard, Jovan Scott Lewis traces the dealings of three young, lower-class Jamaican men who “scam” unsuspecting Westerners out of money in order to secure their livelihoods back home, referring to their efforts as a form of “reparative seizure.” He argues that, for these young men, conning represents an “ethic of seizure”, i.e., a justifiable means of recovering what they have come to understand as resources they are entitled to within a worldview they have constructed and that permanently locks them into an underclass. Lewis situates this ethos within the context of decades and centuries of slavery and colonialism, as well as that of contemporary Western economic development policies that continue to reproduce inequality between Jamaica and the West. As such, scamming becomes a means through which resources are allocated and histories are righted. “Responding to these circumstances with the scam qualifies as what I would term a turn toward postcolonial seizure. In doing so, the crew subverts the ethical foundation of the postcolonial present. […] The crew’s ambition for a better life through the lottery scam becomes an extralegal remediation for the postcolonial condition of their poverty,” Lewis argues.
Extending these logics, I argue that Diyabanza’s protests constitute a type of restitutive seizure through the process of undoing and unmaking the act of colonial plunder through symbolic removal. I call this unlooting. In this context, the act of unlooting, as well as public responses to it, symbolically represents shifting public attitudes not simply toward property entitlements but toward understandings of the neoimperial logics governing relations between the Global South and North. Unlooting disrupts the stability of conventional conceptualizations of legality, justice, ownership, and order through its emphasis on moral claim-making entailing the cultural survival of pre-colonial communities. Unlooting may be unlawful from a legal standpoint, but it is justified as a political act. Rather, it is a political act, given the social mobilization context in which the process is situated and undertaken. While colonial looting is understood, in this case, to be a tool of ongoing imperial domination and hegemony, unlooting is seen as a subversive act meant to draw attention to and dismantle the legacies of the initial theft. As a strategy of anti-imperial activism, unlooting has brought about streams of social and political change within museums and beyond, which require us to take seriously such action as a form of return policy that has the potential to complement more conventional restitution approaches and transform the process of decolonizing Europe’s heritage institutions. I question to what extent unlooting has come to be understood as a legitimate form of decolonial resistance.
“The fact that I had to pay my own money to see what had been taken by force, this heritage that belonged back home where I come from—that’s when the decision was made to take action,” Diyabanza remarked in a New York Times interview. The publication of the 2018 restitution report by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, exposed the sheer scale and extent to which African communities have been systematically alienated from their heritage through acts of imperial looting:
On a continent where 60% of the population is under the age of 20 years-old, what is first and foremost of great importance is for young people to have access to their own culture, creativity, and spirituality from other eras that certainly have evolved since, but whose knowledge and recognition can no longer merely be reserved for those residing in Western countries or for those who count themselves among the African diaspora living in Europe.
Diyabanza’s reflections and actions highlight the disparate access to cultural heritage for those living on the continent and serve as calls for redress for the generations whose knowledge of their own heritage has been truncated by imperial plunder. His actions constitute a testament to the legacies of colonial theft. Indeed,most of the descendants of these source communities who currently have access to this history are not situated on the continent but within the diaspora in North America and Western Europe; without restitution, these descendants may never be able to experience their heritage in its original site of production. Geographical asymmetries in access to heritage, in this context, disproportionately create a sense of urgent responsibility and call to action the members of the diasporic community to pursue alternative methods of recovery and repair.
The geographies of Diyabanza’s activism are indeed important. Situating the protests within museums in Paris, Marseille, and Berg en Dal calls attention to the disparate holdings of African art in the West as well as the sites where restitution conversations have been active, since France and the Netherlands have both pursued legal and political action in recent years. That these actions did not take place in museums in Angola, China, or Mexico, but rather in Western spaces, situates the discourse of cultural dispossession and restitution between Africa and Europe and within the context of the legacies of colonialism and slavery that continue to animate relations between countries and continents. While the object that was the focus of Diyabanza’s efforts was from his native Congo—a Congolese funeral statue at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal—other objects that he attempted to steal were from other nations; for example, a statue came from Flores, a former Portuguese colony in Southeast Asia. The wide range of communities from which the artifacts were sourced unsettles any notion that Diyabanza has been invested in securing justice only for his own aggrieved community. His unlooting, as an act of decolonial solidarity, speaks to the extensive and profound reach of colonial looting and the ways in which these struggles are all interconnected through the transcendent veil of empire.
“We came to recuperate what is rightfully ours,” Diyabanza told his social media followers who were watching him engage in the September 2020 protest at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal in real time. The staging of the protest as a spectacle achieved through a variety of performance techniques is significant in that it helps to differentiate Diyabanza’s actions from what is conventionally conceived of as theft, i.e., the intent to steal property that belongs to another person or institution. Diyabanza was not acting alone in any of his actions but alongside four other members of the group Unité, Dignité, Courage, of which he is the leader and whose mission is to fight for the “liberation and transformation of Africa.” These other members, who were also charged with various criminal offenses for the action, contributed to the symbolic staging of the protest, with some members filming the live stream on social media while others helped Diyabanza to physically remove the objects from their locations in the museums. I argue that the group’s actions are primarily symbolic, because its members did not intend to fully remove the objects from the museum and return them to the Democratic Republic of Congo directly—nor did they even believe that this would be possible given the security apparatus of such institutions. During his trial in Paris following the protest at the Musée du quai Branly, Diyabanza defended himself by arguing that his actions were part of a protest and did not constitute attempted theft. Instead, his actions constituted a discursive protest that did not mean to bring the direct and immediate return of the objects he removed, but rather signified an attempt to draw attention to the urgency of the matter of restitution and to the lack of progress states have made toward their promise over the last years and decades. Headlines such as “Man tries to take artefact from Louvre—just two weeks after being charged for the same crime at Quai Branly,” which seek to sensationalize the protest, ultimately mischaracterize the intention of Diyabanza’s work, focusing on the unlawfulness of the act rather than the political message it was meant to convey. Other outlets, by contrast, published pieces that foregrounded the political nature of his actions. For instance, a New York Times editorial entitled, “To Protest Colonialism, He Takes Artifacts From Museums,” mitigated the rhetoric of criminality.
The criminal charges and convictions levied by the museums against Diyabanza signal an uncertainty on the part of the justice system about whether to treat Diyabanza as a thief or as a political protester. He was saddled with charges including “attempted theft” and “aggravated theft.” In response, Diyabanza suggested that his real “crime,” in the eye of the media, was the mere act of drawing negative attention to the museums: “[I was charged] for tarnishing its image… in the name of ethics, any thinking person knows that these museums do not deserve respect or consideration.” Yet the sentences he received in the four cases were fairly minimal and included fines that ranged from €1,000 to €5,000, as well as temporary bans from some of the museums; he thus avoided prison time. The comparatively lenient nature of the sentences, which fell far short of significant punishments common in conventional theft cases—especially given the severity of anti-trafficking legislation across Europe—appears to indicate that the justice system was sympathetic to the fact that his protests were political and may also reflect changing public attitudes concerning the question of restitution. As the return of colonially looted heritage has become increasingly embedded in mainstream public discourse across North America and Western Europe and support for restitution has grown, the response of judicial institutions has mirrored these attitudes and softened after decades of resistance to any consideration of restitution.
In a December 2020 Instagram message that Diyabanza posted following his sentencing in the Louvre case—€5,000 in fines—he signaled that there may be a new momentum within the movement: “If I go back to prison I will teach my knowledge there and I will come out with three hundred faithful ready for anything. I will turn what you call bandits into militants and use their skills. They will not be afraid to pick up the phone and recover what belongs to them.” While no further acts of unlooting seem to have taken place since this initial period, the calls for the decolonization of museums and public cultural institutions have resounded over the last two years, as governments and museums, which can no longer remain silent or idle on the question of restitution, have faced public accountability globally. Diyabanza’s actions have destabilized our understanding of crime, theft, and wrongdoing, as events that are defined by action rather than politics—politics that is shifting beneath our feet, as museums are being called into processes of reparative justice. By transforming the bandit into a militant, thereby subverting the inherent criminality of the actors and their intent, his work has helped redefine the limits of restitution and repair.
Diyabanza’s protests help articulate the moral contradictions inherent in the colonial looting of Africa’s cultural heritage and attempt to rectify the harm resulting from such plunder. Through performative acts of “theft,” he asserts a form of cultural power that has been stripped over centuries of active plunder and decades of failure in making good on restitution promises. Diyabanza inverts conventional logics of ownership and possession and reestablishes a new moral order within museums and art worlds. By “taking back” what, in his words, rightfully belongs to his people, he not only subverts European power and replaces it with that which is pre-colonial, but he restructures the very ways in which we understand the histories that govern these relations.
The act of administering reparations has traditionally been intended to redress crimes or harm, but I argue that, in the context of unlooting, “crime” itself becomes a method of repair where conventional restorative modes have failed or stalled. Unlooting, as such, becomes a technology which, instead of posing a challenge to morality, has the power, to quote Walker (2006), to “sustain morality itself” through its inversion of imperial wrongdoing, thereby seeking to rebalance postcolonial relations of power. Dan Hicks, in the New York Times editorial about Diyabanza’s protest, commented on this geopolitical repositioning, referring to the protestor’s actions as “‘a visual protest,’ tailored for social media, that involved a role reversal: a cultural object was being seized in Europe on behalf of people in Africa.” Unlooting transcends the encounter between individual and institution and between thief and victim to fundamentally restructure the “ethics of relation” between the North and South.
As Lewis (2020) argues in his study, the scammers’ ethical moorings of poverty steeped in histories of dispossession “complicate the simple implication of criminality,” thereby challenging the very notion of crime. Likewise, the process of unlooting destabilizes our very understanding of theft and criminality by seeking to undo and repair imperial acts of theft that have, for centuries, evaded the legal criminal framework on account of unequal colonial histories and systems of power. By operating through an extralegal apparatus, unlooting confronts colonial criminality in its historic and contemporary instantiations, calling us to recognize the necessity of return and the need for a novel approach to restitution. Through such acts of reparative insurrection marked by urgency and subaltern agency, the unlooter advances a new ethic of repair that has the potential to reconstitute the uneasy relations between museums and source communities.
Cresa Pugh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. Her research examines the sociocultural and political legacies of imperialism and violence in postcolonial Africa.
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 Mwazulu Diyabanza’s personal Instagram account, translated from French, https://www.instagram.com/p/CI8N8wjj7a_/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=e92a8f57-fc40-4b63-a258-bb595cd8ef83, 2020.
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Published on February 21, 2023.