‘It's as if we've ended up in a museum of decolonisation’

Activist Mwazulu Diyabanza visits Antwerp: ‘Chef Ne Kuko must come home!’

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

 

In recent months, activist Mwazulu Diyabanza has made several attempts to remove African looted art from European museums. At the request of MO* he visited the Antwerp exhibition 100 x Congo in the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS). There he was welcomed by co-curator Nadia Nsayi: ‘This exhibition is not just about the past.’

To some, Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza Siwa Lemba is a modern-day Robin Hood who wants to return African heritage to where it was once stolen. To others, he is a thief who steals valuable artefacts from museums.

In June he tried to walk out of the Quai Branly museum in Paris with a statue from Chad. In the Dutch Africa Museum in Berg en Dal, he tried to get some fresh air with a funerary statue of the Kongo from the colonial period until he was caught by the police. He has also previously visited the Africa Museum in Tervuren. Early October he visited the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp, although this time he did not come unannounced.

Not a thief, but an activist who wants to return looted art to its rightful owners, that is how he introduced himself to the French court before getting convicted for his actions in the Quai Branly museum.

‘The museums are illegally in possession of this African heritage!’ This is the message he always emphasizes during his actions, which can be followed live via social media. Thousands of sympathizers encourage him during his controversial museum visits.

Watch live video footage of the visit that was shared on Facebook here.

At the invitation of MO*, he traveled from Paris to Antwerp. The employees of the MAS are prepared for his arrival. But the guest is running late. Three sympathizers from Liège traveled to Antwerp especially for the occasion. Nadia Nsayi, curator representation and co-curator of the exhibition 100 x Congo — A century of Congolese art in Antwerp, is waiting with them for Mwazulu’s arrival.

‘Did you arrange for a Congolese guide just for us?’

In the meantime, Nsayi introduces the new Antwerp-Congolese guide Marie-Antoinette Kumudidi Walo to them. ‘Did you arrange for a Congolese guide just for us?’, Laety, one of the activists from Liège, asks suspiciously. ‘No, we did not. We have five guides of Belgo-Congolese origin for this exhibition. Marie-Antoinette gives guided tours in both Lingala and French.’ Together they marvel at the fact that guides belonging to the African diaspora are almost unseen at exhibitions about their very own heritage.

No, they did not know that Antwerp has such an extensive collection of Congolese objects acquired during the colonial period. ‘I myself lived in Antwerp for three years and didn’t know either’, Nsayi admits, ‘until I started working for the MAS.’

Captured behind glass

Accompanied by several French members of his pan-African movement, Unité Dignité Courage, and with his smartphone in hand, the charismatic activist finally walks into the MAS.

It deserves mentioning that not every museum would open its doors to an activist who usually does not walk out empty-handed. But the MAS does not shy away from any confrontation. ‘It was very important for the museum from the outset that this exhibition was not only about the past, but also about the future. We do not avoid questions on the origin of pieces.’

‘We do not avoid questions on the origin of pieces.’

A hundred years ago, the city of Antwerp started collecting Congolese objects. They are inextricably linked to the city’s colonial history. Exactly one century later, Els De Palmenaer and Nadia Nsayi are able to highlight a selection of one hundred objects.

De Palmenaer, who as keeper of African objects has been studying the collection for many years, seizes the opportunity, together with Nsayi, to get the people of Antwerp thinking. With the help of Congolese researchers, the curators are as transparent as possible about the origin of the pieces displayed. Filmmakers and artists focus on the colonial history of the city in their work.

‘Anyone visiting the exhibition may feel uncomfortable. Because that’s what this collection is’, says Nsayi, whose partly Congolese origins motivated her to participate in the exhibition.

At the start, Mwazulu’s camera and live stream create a tense atmosphere. For what purpose did he accept this invitation? It is the elephant in the room. These pieces do not belong in a museum, he made that clear earlier. ‘This wealth, of inestimable value, is in a prison today.’ Behind the glass are two wrought iron Kuba figurines that, according to oral tradition, date back to the 17th or 18th century. The activists present nod.

‘As you can see there are many guards here’, the activist clarifies to his viewers. More and more people are watching, soon the number is up to 500 and by the end of the tour almost 10,000 people are following the visit online.

The guards try their best to play a less obtrusive role, but it is hard to deny that there are more of them than usual. ‘There are classes of students visiting here as well’, Nsayi tries to appease. ‘Has this glass been placed here especially for me?’ He asks her the question twice.

Looted art

‘We borrowed the statue of chef Ne Kuko from Tervuren, especially for the occasion, because it was on display here at the Antwerp World Fair in 1885. But it also offers an opportunity to talk about its acquisition, which was very violent.’

Nsayi does not mince her words. We know for certain that it was stolen by a Belgian citizen. The statue of chef Ne Kuko is internationally known as an important example of looted art. Nsayi points out, ‘here is a second such clear example of looting.’

‘This statue offers an opportunity to talk about its acquisition, which was very violent.’

‘Ne Kuko.’ Mwazulu repeats it several times while looking the statue straight in the eye. Despite his earlier visit to Tervuren, he seems to be looking at the statue for the first time. Nsayi is not surprised that the statue catches the eye, ‘That is exactly the intention.’

‘Already at the end of the 19th century, the chief from the village of Kikuku had asked for the statue to be returned. His question was ignored’, Nsayi explains. President Mobutu also asked for the statue to be returned in the 1970s. And even in 2016 the current chief of Kikuku repeated the request.’

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

 

Bon. You witnessed this whole story’, he says to the impressive power statue. Then he turns to his online followers: ‘Our French Minister of Culture says that any restitution request must be asked officially.’ He points to Ne Kuko. ‘Here. I’ll let you think for yourself.’ He continues walking through the exhibition taking big steps.

Museum of decolonisation

Restitution, returning that what was once displaced or taken away, does not solely revolve around objects. It also deals with bodily remains. This becomes clear as we see what appears to be a memorial plaque for the Congolese people who died during the Antwerp World Fair in 1894. The visitor reads eight names of young Congolese men who had to appear in a human zoo in Antwerp, but did not survive the spectacle due to the harsh conditions.

Research carried out by the MAS museum revealed that they would be buried in the Schoonselhof cemetery. Together with some inhabitants of the Congolese diaspora in Antwerp, the city will soon start work on a monument to commemorate them. Mwazulu shakes his head. ‘No, they have to return home.’

Mwazulu shakes his head. ‘No, they have to return home.’

‘I’d like to request a moment of silence here’, Nsayi suggests. The homage to these needless victims, who died for western amusement, offers a moment’s rest to an hitherto tense visit. Heart emojis appear under Mwazulu’s live stream.

What Mwazulu thinks of the approach of the exhibition is still difficult to make out halfway through the visit. He often stops to communicate his point of view to his viewers. For example, he states that the royal chair of the Chokwe is not only aesthetically a pearl, but that robbing the throne of a leader clearly served a political purpose, namely undermining local power.

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

The chair is an important object in the collection to guide Marie-Antoinette as well. ‘We Congolese who live in Belgium today are still not allowed to sit down. We get no peace, no stability here. The discomfort remains.’

Ⓒ MAS

The two Kuba statues inspire Mwazulu to create a monologue in which he initially takes a stern stance: ‘There are three such statues worldwide. Two of them are here. And Africa? When will the children born on that soil ever know that this prince, their ancestor, forged it? If you would listen as I do, you would hear the pain of the children. They were robbed, their future has been robbed.’

‘We have never heard an explanation like this in a museum before.’

‘We have never heard an explanation like this in a museum before.’ Mwazulu’s tone is changing. ‘It’s as if we’ve ended up in a museum of decolonisation, where people talk about the origin of pieces and the crimes that were committed.’ The openness with which, according to him, the exhibition quotes names and elaborates on the origin of pieces is a step towards some restoration of the past.

The followers on Facebook who were waiting for the moment where he would take a piece in his hands and search for an exit sign, see their hopes go up in smoke.

But Mwazulu knows how to play with the emotions and expectations of his audience. Suddenly he takes an embroidered raffia fabric from the wall, ostensibly to prove he has the right to to do this. ‘Oh, my dear…’, Nsayi reacts, looking at the guards for a moment, hoping they will not react too quickly.

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

 

‘How long has this been hanging here?’ ‘No. This is recent.’ The work is part of a project by the Antwerp artist Bren Heymans and embroiderers from Kasaï. Mwazulu puts the work back on the wall and walks to a closed cupboard. ‘You acknowledge that this belongs to all of us? How are these cabinets opened, for maintenance, for example?’

Decolonize to deradicalize

‘How do you look at the Congo now?’ It is the question with which the exhibition ends. ‘What is the future of this collection? We already know Mwazulu’s answer’, Nsayi says. But the curators want every visitor to think about this question.

In the book Dochter van de dekolonisatie (Daughter of Decolonisation), recently published by Nadia Nsayi, she writes that she does not see herself as a curator, but as a decolonizer. Does Mwazulu think she has succeeded in her purpose with this exhibition?

‘If she calls herself a decolonizer, I respect that’, he says diplomatically when we take a seat and talk in private after the visit. The live stream has ended and the other activists are enjoying a coffee break. ‘At least she’s telling the story behind this collection and that’s innovative.’ Nevertheless, he would like to see Nsayi take the next step: ‘Ask for restitution. You would have to ask every visitor to help make sure that the objects return home.’

‘To exert political pressure, activists need information and knowledge. I believe that when you leave this museum, you too will have gained new information.’

‘To me, that’s the role of an activist’, she answers. ‘My job is to inform and facilitate debate. The decision on restitution is in the hands of the city of Antwerp. But to be able to take political action, to put political pressure, activists need information and knowledge. I believe that when you leave this museum, you too will have gained new information.’

Although their methods differ, Nsayi and Mwazulu agree on many points. For example, both expect a lot from the African diaspora in Europe. Nsayi: ‘This exhibition ends in March 2021. But I do not know where we will be socially in six months. A parliamentary committee has just been set up that will also deal with the colonial past and restitution. Society, and certainly the diaspora, can play a very important role and determine the future path of the debate. But we will have to see whether this diaspora will organize itself and contribute effectively to moving forward.’

Nsayi says she likes to pass along this message to young people from the diaspora: ‘History teaches us that justice is not something you are given. It is not a gift. You have to force it.’ Mwazulu agrees: ‘Every law that abolishes an injustice, such as slavery, is preceded by a struggle.’

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

 

Both Nsayi and Mwazulu find hope in the generation whose identity has roots on two continents. Perhaps because Europe seems to be leaving a lot up to African countries. European leaders and museums always say they are waiting for an official question from African leaders. However, African leaders, such as Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, state that restitution is not a priority at the moment.

‘If a part of the diaspora can make progress, it will have an impact in the country of origin. This may not seem like a priority at the moment, but that is perfectly normal. People have other daily concerns about their very survival’, Nsayi says. ‘This is precisely why people from the diaspora have to play an important and organized role.’ In her opinion, the lack of a culture and identity is one of the problems a country like Congo is unconsciously struggling with.

Mwazulu warns: ‘What will happen if people don’t listen today?’ He acknowledges that his actions in the museums are mainly symbolic and clarifies that they must not become violent in any way. ‘If we don’t listen to the peaceful resistance now,’ adds Nsayi, ‘the resistance will radicalize. If society is not able to talk in earnest about racism and justice, we risk ending up with radicalization that could make our own society very unstable.’

Coming home

In her book, Nsayi also suggests that, legally speaking, perhaps we should turn the tables. Today our country, or in this case the city of Antwerp, owns the pieces. Belgium can thus unilaterally determine whether the pieces are legally transferred or lent to Congo. Nsayi puts forward the idea of returning ownerhip of the pieces to the Congolese state and, pending their return, the current owners keep them on loan.

With his actions, Mwazulu might seem to denounce the legal right of ownership in thinking he can simply walk out of museums with African heirlooms. Yet he is not blind to the legal reality. He is actively looking at how the actions of his Unité Dignité Courage can also be extended in the legal field. ‘We are prepared to challenge the right of ownership. Because you can beat Mike Tyson in a street fight, but that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t beat him in the ring. ’

He does emphasize that the law itself is unjust. ‘If I take your recording device and then make a document that says it’s mine and then ask you to prove me wrong, how unfair is that?’

Mwazulu does not agree that only official African authorities can demand for the return of pieces. A traditional chief or a survivor, or Mwazulu himself as a spokesman, is equally entitled to demand the return of a stolen piece.

If he had gotten away with the statue from Berg en Dal  —  or with any piece in the future  —  who would he hand it to? ‘Offering it to a head of state seems like an interesting test in itself, just to see how they react.’ But in the end, he doesn’t believe that pieces should simply end up in an African museum. ‘The pieces must go to the people, the people to whom they belong.’

‘It’s only now dawning on me: I’ve come to bring Ne Kuko home!’

‘That’s an interesting idea. I visited the new museum in Kinshasa last year. Although it is free of charge, very few Congolese people actually go there.’ Nsayi also finds it very paternalistic that Western countries would set the conditions for restitution and determine the method of conservation.

The power statue, robbed from the hands of chief Ne Kuko, has already been mentioned several times throughout the visit. ‘Now I know’, Mwazulu suddenly says: ‘It’s only now dawning on me: I’ve come to bring Ne Kuko home!’

‘We’ll have to go upstairs later. We have to take Ne Kuko with us’, he says to his colleague who actually wanted to say that the online youth channel AJ+ is waiting for an online interview. ‘Yes, good. But Chief Ne Kuko urgently must come home!’

Ⓒ Elien Spillebeen

 

The exhibition 100 x Congo — A century of Congolese art in Antwerp at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp is accessible until the end of March 2021. Due to the pandemic, do not forget to book tickets online in advance.

This article is a translation of the original piece in Dutch and has been translated by Elise Vandepoele.

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