Sunday, May 9, 2021

With a new museum, African workers take control of their destiny

AMSTERDAM – When Dutch artist Renzo Martens presented his film “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” at the Tate Modern in London in 2010, he couldn’t help but notice the many Unilever logos painted on the museum’s white walls.

Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company that owns X, Dove, Vaseline and other domestic brands, is a sponsor of Unilever series, In which an artist is commissioned to perform a site-specific work for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

“Unilever, Unilever, Unilever series,” Martens recounts that moment in his latest documentary, “White Cube,”. “World’s Greatest, Most Famous Artist Funded by Unilever.”

Unilever was once almost ubiquitous, too, in the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo where Martens has worked since 2004. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty”, since 2008, documented dire conditions on the country’s palm oil plantations, where workers earned less than $ 1 a day. In “White cube,” He is visiting former Unilever-owned gardens in the villages Botteka and Lusanga. (Unilever Last sold its gardens in Congo in 2009.)

For Martens, Unilever represents a system of global exploitation, in which Western companies extract resources from poor countries, generate income, and then use that money to finance high culture elsewhere. He added that some artists who support him also do works centered on inequality, but those works rarely benefit the needy.

In a recent interview in Amsterdam, Martens said, “People on the plantations are desperately poor, and they work for the global community.” “They also work, indirectly, for exhibitions at the Tate Modern. If it declares inequality the art is fruitless but does not bring benefits to those people.”

“I wanted to make sure that criticism of inequality would at least partially and materially redress that inequality.”

Martens’ art career took off after “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty”, and he said he decided at the time to use his new state of influence in the art world to try a “reverse Gentrification project” Do it The objective was to bring the plantation directly, to encourage the economic development of the place. In “White Cube”, a 77-minute film that is screening at art centers around the world this month, including The Netherlands, Eindhoven; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; And Tokyo, the documents that process. The movie will also be screened at the Copenhagen Documentary Festival, which will run from 21 April to 2 May.

“White Cube” is a record of a film and a project trying to transform a community through art. By directly linking the rich international art world to a weakened African plantation, Martens demonstrated how fortunes shine throughout the world. At the center of this effort are issues of restoration, repatriation and perhaps even reevaluation. The underlying question that the “White Cube” poses is: what does art like the communities from which it is so much drawn?

Such questions are particularly relevant even today as governments have vowed to identify art plundered from the African continent in their public museums. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to begin a large-scale repatriation in 2017. He Started a study, Which found that 90 percent to 95 percent of African art is held by museums outside Africa. Also an advisory committee of the Dutch government last year It was recommended that the Netherlands should also return art For his former colonies.

“The thing that needs to be restored is not just the old items – the need to make sure that – but it’s also about the infrastructure,” Martens said. “Where is the art?” Where is art allowed to attract capital, visibility and legitimacy to the people? “

“White Cube” begins in 2012, when Martens attempts to bring art to an operational plantation in Boteca. This quickly goes wrong, and he runs out of the community under threats made by a Congolese company that took over the running of the plantation after Unilever was ejected.

He is more successful when he tries once again in Lusanga, a village once known as Leverville, after William Lever, the founder of a company that later became Unilever. Lever established one of its first Congolese gardens in 1911. The operation of Leaerville ceased in the 1990s, leaving buildings that had become degraded and soiled that had gone waste after a century of intensive single-crop farming.

In the film, Martens states that Unilever obtained plantations in the Congo through land grants from Belgian colonial administrators in the early 20th century, profiting and destroying the soil, then selling the land and leaving the venture to contractors gave.

Unilever declined to comment on Martens’ film or on allegations of exploitation against the company. Marlus den Bierman, a Unilever spokesman, said in an email that, “Unilever has no involvement in DRC plantations since selling well 10 years ago.”

As part of the “White Cube”, former agricultural workers volunteered to be part of an art studio that created sculptures they would pour into chocolate – a rarely tasty taste for workers, despite the fact That they used to produce palm oil, a key ingredient – and then Sold in an art gallery in new york. Local sculptors formed a cooperative, Congolese Plantation Workers Art League and shared the proceeds of the sale. So far, the “White Cube” project has generated $ 400,000 for the local community, said Congo president of the cooperative René Nongo; It has used half of it to buy more land.

As the centerpiece of the project in Lusanga, Martens provided the free assistance of OMA, the firm of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to design an art museum – the film’s title, “White Cube”. Behind the scenes, he negotiated with a Dutch philanthropist to pay for it, and worked with Congolese architect Arsne Izambo, who adapted the design and hired local construction workers. In total, about $ 250,000 of private investment was raised to build a museum, art studio, a convention center and housing, according to Martens.

In a video interview from the Congo recently, Cedart Tamasala, One of the locals who made chocolate sculptures, said he aspired to become an artist from an early age, but was forced to leave art school in Kinshasa for lack of funds and work at his uncle’s family farm Went to do no pay. The “White Cube” project has given him a sense of income, stability and autonomy, he said.

“One important aspect is that we now have our own place; We have our land and we can decide what we want to do with it.

“The film, like the white cube, is a device,” Tamsala said. “It tells us what we’re doing, and it makes it visible, and it connects us to the world, to other plantations, to other artists as well, and it gives us access to the things that we have access to earlier Was not. “

The museum has been closed during the coronovirus epidemic, but there are plans to display the work of local artists, including, eventually, returned art from European museums.

Human rights activist Jean-François Mombia, who has worked with the Martons since 2005, said, “My most ardent wish for the Lusanga Museum is that it is a support for the repatriation of our hijacked art.” It is also a support that will allow us to express ourselves through art. We want the Lusanga Museum to be a foundation for the artistic bloom of museums in the Congo. “

Tamsala said that bringing back stolen art from the Congo in colonial times would only amount to a small compensation for all those who were looted from their community. “Apart from the artwork that was taken away from here, there were diamonds, gold, palm oil, a lot of things,” he said. “If we need to grope something, we have to change not only the art, but all of that as well.”

With that in mind, does Martens think he can do a former plantation for the city?

“I didn’t see the boundaries, yet,” he said. “I only see possibilities.”

He said, “Art was a magic wand,” which could cause all these positive side effects. I think it should be on a plantation and not specifically in New York or Amsterdam or Dubai or Cape Town. “

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