AMSTERDAM – When Dutch artist Renzo Martens presented his film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty at Tate Modern in London in 2010, he noticed the many Unilever logos painted on the museum’s white walls.
Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company that owns Ax, Dove, Vaseline and other household brands, sponsors the Unilever series, which hires an artist to create a site-specific work for the turbine hall at Tate Modern.
“Unilever, Unilever, the Unilever series,” Martens recalls in his latest documentary, “White Cube”. “The greatest and most famous artists in the world, funded by Unilever.”
Unilever was once almost ubiquitous in the region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Martens has been working since 2004. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” from 2008 documented the poor conditions on the country’s palm oil plantations, where workers earned less than $ 1 a day. In “White Cube” he then visits former Unilever plantations in the villages of Boteka and Lusanga. (Unilever sold the last plantation in the Congo in 2009.)
For Martens, Unilever represents a system of global exploitation in which Western companies extract resources from poorer countries, generate income and then use part of this wealth to finance high culture elsewhere. Some of the artists they support also make works that focus on inequality, but the benefits of these works rarely go to those in need.
“The people on plantations are desperately poor and work for the global community,” Martens said in a recent interview in Amsterdam. “You even work indirectly for exhibitions at the Tate Modern. Art is sterile when it claims it is about inequality but does not benefit these people. “
“I wanted to make sure that criticizing inequality would at least partially and materially redress that inequality,” he added.
Martens’ art career began after “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” and he said it was at that time that he decided to use his new position of influence in the art world to attempt a “Reverse Gentrification Project”. The aim was to bring art directly to the plantations in order to promote economic development there. “White Cube”, a 77-minute film showing this month in art centers around the world, including Eindhoven, Netherlands; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tokyo document this process. The film will also be shown at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival, which runs from April 21st to May 2nd.
“White Cube” is both a film and a recording of a project that seeks to transform a community through art. By linking the affluent international art world directly to an impoverished African plantation, Martens shows how fortunes are intertwined around the world. The focus of the project are questions of reimbursement, repatriation and perhaps even reparation. The underlying question “White Cube” asks itself is: What does art owe to the communities from which it has gained so much?
Such questions are particularly relevant today as governments have vowed to identify art in their public museums that has been looted from the African continent. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to initiate a large-scale repatriation. He commissioned a study that found that 90 to 95 percent of African art is held in museums outside of Africa. An advisory committee to the Dutch government last year also recommended that the Netherlands bring art back to its former colonies.
“What needs to be restored is not just old objects – that has to happen safely – but it’s also about the infrastructure,” said Martens. “Where does art take place? Where can art attract capital, visibility and legitimacy for people? “
“White Cube” begins in 2012 when Martens tries to bring art to an operational plantation in Boteka. Things quickly go wrong and he is evicted from the community at the threat of a Congolese company that took over the plantation after Unilever withdrew.
He will be more successful if he tries again in Lusanga, a village once known as Leverville after William Lever, founder of a company that later became Unilever. Lever built one of his first Congolese plantations there in 1911. Operations in Leverville ceased in the 1990s, leaving behind dilapidated buildings and floors that could no longer be tilled after a century of intensive individual crops.
In the film, Martens says that Unilever got its plantations in the Congo through a land grant from Belgian colonial administrators in the early 20th century, harvested the profits and depleted the soil, then sold the land and turned the company over to contractors.
Unilever declined to comment on Martens’ film or the allegations of exploitation he made against the company. Marlous den Bieman, a Unilever spokeswoman, said in an email: “Unilever has not had a stake in the plantations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since it was sold more than 10 years ago.”
As part of ‘White Cube’, former farm workers volunteered to be part of an art studio that made sculptures that they poured in chocolate – a rare-tasting delicacy for the workers, despite the fact that they used to make the palm oil, a key ingredient – and then sold in an art gallery in New York. The local sculptors formed a cooperative, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, and shared the proceeds. So far, the White Cube project has generated US $ 400,000 for the local community, said René Ngongo, the Congolese president of the cooperative. Half of that was used to buy more land.
At the heart of the project in Lusanga, Martens enlisted the pro bono support of OMA, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to design an art museum – the “White Cube” of the film title. Behind the scenes, he negotiated with a Dutch philanthropist to pay the cost and worked with Congolese architect Arséne Ijambo, who adapted the design and hired local construction workers. In total, according to Martens, US $ 250,000 in private investment was raised to build the museum, art studios, conference center, and accommodations.
In a recent video interview from the Congo, Cedart Tamasala, one of the locals who makes the chocolate sculptures, said he wanted to be an artist at a young age but was forced to drop out of art school in Kinshasa for no money and went to his family farm without pay Uncle. The “White Cube” project gave him income, stability and a sense of autonomy, he said.
“One of the important things is that we now have our place. We have our land and we can decide what to do with it, ”he noted.
“The film, like the white cube, is a tool,” added Tamasala. “It says what we do and it makes it visible, and it connects us with the world, with other plantations, with other artists, and it gives us access to things that we had no access to before.”
The museum was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but plans to display works by local artists there, including ultimately art from European museums.
“My greatest wish for the Lusanga Museum is to help return our kidnapped art,” said Jean-François Mombia, a human rights activist who has worked with Martens since 2005, in an email exchange also a support it enables us to express ourselves through art. We want the Lusanga Museum to be a base for the artistic flowering of museums across the Congo. “
Tamasala said that bringing back art that was stolen from the Congo during the colonial days would only mean small compensation for anything that was looted by his community. “Aside from the works of art that were taken from here, there were diamonds, gold, palm oil and so many other things,” he said. “If we have to give something back, we have to give back all of that, not just the art.”
With that in mind, are there any restrictions on what Martens can do for a former plantation town?
“I don’t see any limits yet,” he said. “I only see opportunities.”
Art is “a magic wand” that “can produce all these positive side effects”. I think it should happen on a plantation and not exclusively in New York or Amsterdam or Dubai or Cape Town. “