AMSTERDAM — When the Dutch artist Renzo Martens offered his movie “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” at Tate Modern in London in 2010, he couldn’t assist however discover the numerous Unilever logos painted throughout the museum’s white partitions.
Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch firm that owns Axe, Dove, Vaseline and different family manufacturers, sponsors the Unilever Series, by which an artist is commissioned to make a site-specific work for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
“Unilever, Unilever, the Unilever series,” Martens says in his newest documentary, “White Cube,” recalling that second. “The greatest, most famous artists of the world, financed by Unilever.”
Unilever was as soon as almost ubiquitous, too, within the area of the Democratic Republic of Congo the place Martens has labored since 2004. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” from 2008, documented dire situations on the nation’s palm oil plantations, the place employees earned lower than $1 a day. In “White Cube,” he follows up by visiting former Unilever-owned plantations within the villages of Boteka and Lusanga. (Unilever sold the last of its plantations in Congo in 2009.)
To Martens, Unilever represents a system of world exploitation, by which Western corporations extract assets from poorer international locations, generate earnings, after which use a few of that wealth to finance excessive tradition elsewhere. Some of the artists they help, he added, additionally make works targeted on inequality, however the advantages of these works not often go to these in want.
“People on plantations are desperately poor, and they work for the global community,” Martens mentioned in a current interview in Amsterdam. “They even work, indirectly, for exhibitions in the Tate Modern. Art is sterile if it proclaims to be about inequality but doesn’t bring benefits to those people.”
“I wanted to make sure that a critique of inequality would, at least partially, and materially, redress that inequality,” he added.
Martens’s artwork profession took off after “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” and he mentioned that he determined at the moment to make use of his new place of affect within the artwork world to try a “reverse gentrification project.” The goal was to convey artwork on to the plantations, to stimulate financial improvement there. “White Cube,” a 77-minute movie that’s screening in artwork facilities the world over this month, together with in Eindhoven, the Netherlands; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tokyo, paperwork that course of. The film can even display screen within the Copenhagen Documentary Festival, which runs April 21 by means of May 2.
“White Cube” is each a movie and a report of a mission looking for to remodel a neighborhood by means of artwork. By linking the rich worldwide artwork world on to an impoverished African plantation, Martens demonstrates how fortunes throughout the globe are intertwined. Central to the endeavor are problems with restitution, repatriation and maybe even reparations. The underlying query that “White Cube” poses is: What does artwork owe to the communities from which it has extracted a lot?
Such questions are notably related at the moment as governments have vowed to establish artwork looted from the African continent of their public museums. President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged in 2017 to start a large-scale repatriation. He commissioned a study, which discovered that 90 % to 95 % of African artwork is held by museums exterior of Africa. An advisory committee to the Dutch authorities final 12 months additionally recommended that the Netherlands should also return art to its former colonies.
“What needs to be restituted is not just old objects — for sure that needs to happen — but it’s also about the infrastructure,” Martens mentioned. “Where does art take place? Where is art allowed to attract capital, visibility, and legitimacy for people?”
“White Cube” begins in 2012, when Martens makes an attempt to convey artwork to an operational plantation in Boteka. It shortly goes unsuitable, and he’s chased out of the neighborhood beneath threats made by a Congolese firm that took over working the plantation after Unilever pulled out.
He is extra profitable when he tries once more in Lusanga, a village as soon as often known as Leverville, after William Lever, founding father of an organization that later grew to become Unilever. Lever established one in all his first Congolese plantations there, in 1911. The Leverville operation closed down within the 1990s, forsaking buildings that grew to become derelict and soil that had turn out to be unworkable after a century of intensive single-crop farming.
In the movie, Martens says that Unilever obtained its plantations in Congo by means of a land grant from Belgian colonial directors within the early 20th century, reaped the earnings and depleted the soil, then bought the land and deserted the enterprise to contractors.
Unilever declined to touch upon Martens’s movie or on the accusations of exploitation he makes in opposition to the corporate. Marlous den Bieman, a Unilever spokeswoman, mentioned in an electronic mail that, “Unilever has had no involvement in the D.R.C. plantations since selling them well over 10 years ago.”
As a part of “White Cube,” former agricultural employees volunteered to be a part of an artwork studio producing sculptures, which they forged in chocolate — a not often tasted delicacy for the employees, although they used to supply the palm oil, a key ingredient — after which sold at an art gallery in New York. The native sculptors shaped a cooperative, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, and shared the proceeds of the gross sales. So far, the “White Cube” mission has generated $400,000 for the area people, mentioned René Ngongo, the Congolese president of the cooperative; it has used half of that to purchase extra land.
As the centerpiece of the mission in Lusanga, Martens has enlisted the professional bono help of OMA, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s agency, to design an artwork museum — the “White Cube” of the movie’s title. Behind the scenes, he negotiated with a Dutch philanthropist to pay for it, and labored with the Congolese architect Arséne Ijambo, who tailored the design and employed native building employees. In complete, about $250,000 of personal funding was raised to construct the museum, artwork studios, a convention heart and lodgings, in accordance with Martens.
In a current video interview from Congo, Cedart Tamasala, one of many locals who makes the chocolate sculptures, mentioned that he had aspired to be an artist from a younger age however had been compelled to drop out of artwork faculty in Kinshasa for lack of funds and went to work on his uncle’s household farm for no pay. The “White Cube” mission has given him an earnings, stability and a way of autonomy, he mentioned.
“One of the important aspects is that we have our space now; we have our land and we can decide what we want to do with it,” he famous.
“The film, like the white cube, is a tool,” Tamasala added. “It tells what we are doing, and it makes it visible, and it also connects us to the world, to other plantations, to other artists, and it gives us access to things we didn’t have access to before.”
The museum has been closed throughout the coronavirus pandemic, however there are plans to exhibit native artists’ work there, together with, finally, artwork returned from European museums.
“My most ardent wish for the Lusanga museum is that it be a support for the repatriation of our hijacked art,” Jean-François Mombia, a human-rights activist who has labored with Martens since 2005, mentioned in an electronic mail trade, “but also a support that will allow us to express ourselves through art. We would like the Lusanga museum to be a base for the artistic blossoming of museums throughout Congo.”
Tamasala mentioned that bringing again artwork stolen from Congo in colonial occasions would solely quantity to a small compensation for all that had been plundered from his neighborhood. “Apart from the artwork that has been taken away from here, there were diamonds, gold, palm oil, so many things,” he mentioned. “If we need to restitute something, we need to restitute all of that, not just the art.”
With that in thoughts, are there limitations to what Martens feels he can do for a former plantation city?
“I don’t see limits, yet,” he mentioned. “I only see possibilities.”
Art was “a magic wand,” he added, which may “create 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.”