For years, the Unilever corporation operated a palm oil plantation in the Congolese forest in Lusanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, this former plantation is an art museum thanks to a collaboration between the Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, or CATPC) and the Amsterdam-based Institute for Human Activities (IHA). The museum, fittingly named the White Cube, opened April 21 in a ceremony dubbed "The Repatriation of the White Cube." The museum lies at the heart of the Lusanga International Research Centre on Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI), an organization through which the CATPC artists are becoming both economically and artistically empowered. There, the artists create sculptures molded in clay, which are then 3D-printed and cast in cacao, the raw resource that powers the Congo's $100 billion chocolate industry.
The inaugural exhibition—curated by CATPC—features work, including the chocolate sculptures, that reflects on the on the geopolitical, social, and economic situation of corporate extraction zones globally. Many of the artworks refer to the Congo and its rich history. They include paintings by Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans about Congolese independence leader Patrice Lubumba and his wife Pauline, produced specifically for this exhibition. CATPC also produced new bodies of work in response to contributions by Western artists.
The IHA's founder, Dutch artist Renzo Martens, tells Creators that CATPC decided to exhibit the works in traditional huts built into the environment; the idea being that the pieces will cohabitate with the plantation's ecosystem. These huts form something of a labyrinth that leads to the White Cube, where artwork is also shown.
Martens says the project dates back to 2008, when the IHA initiated a research project, developed by KASK School of Arts in Ghent, that resulted in the film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, which explored systemic economic inequality created by the Western art world.
"Starting in 2012, IHA's goal was to make sure that artistic critiques of economic inequality could also aim to redress that inequality, not just symbolically but in real, material terms," says Martens. "To reach this ambitious goal, since its founding, IHA has been devoted to the construction of an art center in one of the most disenfranchised parts of the world, the palm oil plantations in the D.R. Congo, to ensure that the intellectual and financial benefits of the exhibition of critical art also accumulate there, rather than places like New York, London, Venice, or Berlin."
"We consider the White Cube to be the apex of the art world: it is a metaphor," Martens explains. "The act of bringing back—establishing this quintessential trope on the site of the worn-out plantations—is meant to render visible the abject inequality sustaining contemporary art. This gesture is about site specificity. It might be understood as recontextualizing the global art apparatus in the setting that has historically underwritten its development."
"The underlying idea is to return the apparatus of the museum back to plantation workers, and make sure that the fruits accruing to artistic practice and critical thinking benefit the plantation zones themselves."
As Martens explains, CATPC didn't have any startup capital to buy the land. IHA did, however, and placed it into a joint program by buying the site of the joint research centre. He says CATPC has since invested the profits of their artists' chocolate sculptures to develop its experimental gardens, and is working to buy back the land at the initial site.
While this has given CATPC members some economic autonomy, Martens says that many members still work on plantations, even though Lusanga has not operated under corporate rule since the early 1990s. CATPC members harvest palm nuts from around the plantation and refine the oil themselves, which they sell to intermediaries. Ultimately, it ends up at plant for the production of Blue Brand margarine under a Unilever license. Other CATPC members work at DRC plantations still under corporate rule, which is part of an array of informal activities they are engaged in to make end's meat, which include fishing, hairdressing, and their own farming.
"It is important to understand that even if a corporation doesn't formally employ workers on-site, the plantation is still the social, political, and economic matrix that organizes life on site," says Martens. "Spatial organization and social hierarchies are still determined by the infrastructure established by Unilever, from house and land ownership to the displacement of populations, labor relations, the use of money, language, religion, and more."
"In five years' time, CATPC wants to buy back land throughout the D.R. Congo, and prove that people can actually live well if the division between those who work and those who benefit is overcome," he adds. "Essential decisions are made during their general assembly and are then carried out by the members invested with the responsibility to do so."
Martens says that it is helpful to think of LIRCAEI, which also includes CAPTA's president president René Ngongo (Right Livelihood award 2009) and chief agronomist Alois Kuma, as a redistribution system.
"With artistic means (including the White Cube) we will not defy this market, but rather use it to upend the dominant apartheid in the production of critical art," Martens says. "The resources will be used to invent a new model on-site, going beyond the dead ends of the current model. This will be the post-plantation."
Click here for more information on LIRCAI and CAPTA.