A tale of two protests: Museum protest then and now

Posted on: November 9, 2020 by

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza (left) is a man on a mission. A prolific protestor at museums in France and the Netherlands, he targets objects on display that originate from Africa, lifts them from their stands and parades them around the galleries while making pronouncements on the crimes of European colonialism. ‘Je part avec à la maison,’ he repeats in a video capturing one of these events. I’m taking it home. He’s not of course referring to his abode. He means returning the object to its cultural homeland, to Africa.

One particular incident at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris this June involved a 19th century funeral pole from north-central Africa. Diyabanza was arrested and charged with attempted aggravated theft under the French Penal Code. ‘Aggravated’ here refers to a theft or attempted theft that involves aggravating factors. In France, an aggravating factor includes the theft or attempted theft of a cultural object displayed at a national museum (Code pénal, article 311-4-2 (3rdparagraph)).

His crusade has been covered widely in the press. The New York Times wrote in September that his case was ‘likely to put France on the stand for its colonial track record and for holding so much of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage – 90,000 or so objects – in its museums.’ Some in France have been more critical of his actions. But to others, he has become a folk hero.

Another folk hero from years ago who also targeted museum material to further a political campaign is now being celebrated in film. This was Kempton Bunton, the retired bus driver put on trial in 1965 for the theft of Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery (pictured right). After its theft, Bunton kept it in a cupboard in his council flat in Newcastle. His purpose? To bring attention to what he saw as the great injustice of the day, the rising cost of living for the elderly and, specifically, the government’s imposition of television licence fees on pensioners. He was furious that the government would do nothing about this situation when a good deal of public money had been used to acquire the Goya.

The authorities searched high and low for the painting, but were unsuccessful. It may as well have been in Dr No’s secret island lair (see Sean Connery glimpsing at a replica from the James Bond film, below). According to Bunton’s ransom notes, he wanted £140,000, equivalent to the price paid for the Goya, to be given to a charity for pensioners. But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Fed up, after four years holding onto the work, he returned the painting and turned himself in.

There are obvious differences between the stories of Bunton and Diyabanza. The Goya theft occurred in secret, while Diyabanza’s actions have taken place in the light of day. The Goya had been the only piece sought by Bunton, whereas Diyabanza’s purview covers items across multiple museums. Bunton held onto the Goya for several years in his flat, whereas the pieces targeted by Diyabanza haven’t left the museums.

And yet there are also uncanny parallels. Both acted for what they saw as the greater good. And for both, it was the location of a work that was problematic: for Bunton, public funds should never have been used to secure the Goya for the National Gallery when so much misery abounded; for Diyabanza, the ceremonial objects should never have left the continent of Africa in the first place, having only done so through the violence of European colonialism.

Both also had to face the judicial system. For Bunton, the trial was a sensation. His brilliant barrister deftly honed in on one particular shortcoming of the prosecution’s charge: a theft conviction under the Larceny Act 1916 required proof of ‘an intention to permanently deprive’. Here Bunton had no intention to keep the painting forever, as demonstrated by its eventual return. It was a lawyer’s trick, but one that ultimately paid off. And the jury seemed sympathetic to Bunton (he was 61 at the time). He was acquitted of the theft of the Goya, but – strangely – found guilty for stealing the frame. This was because the frame had never been returned, having been left behind in one of Bunton’s old flats, and so the same defence didn’t hold up. Bunton served three months for what some were calling the crime of the century.

Charged with aggravated theft in France, Diyabanza came out relatively unscathed: no jail time and a €1,000 fine, when the potential penalty could have been up to ten years in prison and a €150,000 fine. It’s not clear what motivated the French prosecutor to seek this lower amount: sympathy for the cause, or perhaps the fear of making Diyabanza a martyr? Whatever the reason, the outcome hasn’t slowed Diyabanza down. Two weeks after his trial, he was at the Louvre, this time targeting an Indonesian pole in the Pavillon des Sessions. Like at the Quai Branly, the removal and the fracas that followed were filmed by one of his associates.

So what do the links between these acts committed almost 50 years apart say about protest, theft (or attempted theft) and the courts? Regarding protest, it is still too early to see if Diyabanza’s campaign has been a success. He has inspired press articles and admiration amongst some. But have his actions led to greater openness to consider returns to Africa? We’ll have to see what transpires over the coming months, now that the Restitution Bill is on its way through the French Parliament.

Did Kempton Bunton ever see his goals achieved? Most immediately, no. The powers-that-be refused his idea of a £140,000 charity pot to assist the vulnerable and elderly (an admirable suggestion). And in the long term? The government did eventually introduce a concession on the TV licence for those over 75…. but that wasn’t until 2000, some 35 years later, under the leadership of Tony Blair. A recent study has even shown that after the fee for the elderly was waived there was a marked improvement in their standard of living (though sadly, as of this summer, the fee has been reintroduced). So Bunton certainly knew what he was talking about. A folk hero, maybe a prophet too?

The film about the Goya theft, starring Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton and Helen Mirren as his wife, will be released imminently in the UK (see promotional image, above left). And who knows: maybe in 40 years time, they’ll be making a film about Diyabanza as well?

Image credits:

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza holding an artefact at the Afrika Museum Berg en Dal in the Netherlands – YouTube

Francisco Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington – Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Still from Dr No (starring Sean Connery as 007), 1962, Eon Productions

Promotional image from The Dukestarring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, to be released in 2021.