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‘White Cube’: a postcolonial utopia?

Renzo Martens in Lusanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Renzo Martens attends the opening of the “White Cube” gallery on April 22, 2017 in the town of Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Junior D. Kannah/AFP

After releasing the sensational film Enjoy Poverty in 2008, and sparking much debate in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Europe on the topic of the “industry against poverty”, the Dutch artist Renzo Martens has just released a new documentary, the White Cube. The new film has already causing ripples in the worlds of development cooperation and art.

The film features the Congolese Plantation Workers Art Circle (CATPC, Cercle d'art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise), a cooperative located in a former plantation owned by the multinational Unilever at Lusanga. It tells the story of artists from CATPC who produce clay sculptures, which are then 3D scanned, sent to a New York museum, and reproduced in chocolate. The cooperative’s proceeds are used to buy back land in Africa, depleted after decades of exploitation by Unilever. The CATPC then goes on to carry out sustainable agroforestry projects.

From an artistic point of view, White Cube makes it possible to relaunch the debates on the place of Africa and the African art on the international art market and in the “meetings of cultures” today. The debates about this film raise two major problems: one, the problem of coloniality in presenting African art in Western museums; and two, the problem of the very definition of what really comprises African art.

The story of colonial and postcolonial capitalist exploitation that this film tells is quickly diverted from its mediation on African art and artists. What ends up capturing viewers’ attention is a revealing sentence from Matthieu Kasiama, a CATPC member:

“Earth or art? If I had to choose, I would choose both. But if I had to choose only one, if I had to choose between art and earth, I would choose earth.”

Kasiama suggests here that there is something more important in art than the art itself. It is neither divinity, nor sublimation, let alone recognition. It is that “something” that symbolises life and to an extent affects our concrete material conditions: the earth and the political subjectivity that it makes possible. “Where can I put my chair and start doing art if I don’t own the land plot?”, he asked.

White Cube thus shines the spotlight on African art and artists, but in a manner that diverts our attention from the crux of the matter – the decolonial debates on the topic. It attempts to focus on the violence produced by a global system in which art is integrated in a range of global challenges, including capitalist exploitation, unequal globalisation, murderous neoliberalism and environmental degradation. However, such a renewal is only possible through a reinterpretation of a number of basic postulates about art, the decolonisation of art, as well as decolonisation more broadly.

Decolonising art from the plantation

By taking up the cause for earth instead of art, the CATPC desecrates the latter. In other words, the meaning of art is no longer to be found in dominant, critical or even decolonial discourses on art. In another scene, Kasiama seems to be wondering why Congolese works of art, which he considers to be sacred objects of his ancestors, are in a New York museum. He also shows that he can endure this blasphemy if this museum allows him to recover his lands, and from this his dignity.

Renzo Martens finds it unfair that “the violence of the plantation system [has always] funded museums” in the North. For him, these institutions and those who visit them “owe a debt to the workers on the plantation”. He therefore proposes to use art not only for denouncing but also for trying to heal and repair what remains of this humanity shattered by the plantation system, of which the museum has become an accomplice. Renzo does not seem to mind that he could be criticised for taking on the role of the “white saviour.” He assumes his centrality in the film, and political correctness does not seem to bother him much. What matters most to him is that the West should pay its debt.

His film thus appears as both an act of contrition and reparation for a “fence”, in relation to his accountability vis-à-vis the double tragedy (human and ecological), of the colonial and postcolonial plantation. The film also extends an invitation to rethink the conditions of rehumanisation of the white man who enjoyed and continues to enjoy the crimes of the plantation today. Thus, it makes a shift in the discourse on the representation and place of art and the African artist toward the issue of repairing the bodies abused by a global system in which art plays a role. It therefore becomes, albeit imperfectly, a fragment of a renewed decolonial critique. This is a self-criticism of a pragmatic Westerner who attempts to think about the problems of North-South relations and the place that art occupies in them both as a problem and as a solution.

Coloniality here consists both in the continuity of the exploitation of Blacks in Congolese plantations (despite the collapse of colonialism) and in the enjoyment of whites, via Unilever and the museums it subsidises, an exploitation that degrades both the black bodies and the environment. As an illustration of postcolonial contrition and alliance, the film explores the conditions for achieving the “rise in humanity” as Achille Mbembe calls it. This is all about a policy of life “which, by definition, for it to be valid, must be shared” between the White man who attempts to pay his debt via the mobilisation of the Western museum; and the Black who tries to re-own his land and, from there, his dignity.

A decolonial political ecology

The film portrays the poverty of these Black plantation workers; it lays bare the plight of a people who do not have enough social capital to weigh. They need resources and as fate would have it, from a White person in search of his own humanity, in search of his own salvation, and not that of the Black this time. The postcolonial alliance that emerges from this encounter is a decolonial political ecology that passes through art.

In other words, as in political ecology, the film shows how poverty and the domination that underlies it are intricately linked to political economy, how this causes the degradation of nature (here by monoculture), and how these human and ecological tragedies find their genesis at various local, national, and international levels. But what the political ecology has not yet done enough is to show the continuity and the coloniality behind this exploiting system on the one hand and, on the other, to get rid of simple discourse in order to act, that means to ensure that the tragedy of the expropriated and injured can be repaired.

While White Cube leads us to a possible form of re-meaning of modern African art in its relationship with colonial plantation and global societal challenges, it presents three questions that still need to be deeply explored:

  • It makes both Renzo and the African neo-artists of the CATPC, capitalist artists who try to get out of the plantation using the logic of the global system they are trying to fight against.

  • The film prompts the question of the broader effectiveness of the CATPC approach in light of a global problem of North-South inequalities, which is really a reconfiguration of a colonial system.

  • Finally, it poses the question of an alliance, certainly pragmatic, but where the poor blacks depending on the networks of white allies may risk remaining apolitical subjects, that is to say, always being represented in their own struggles.

The above questions make the White Cube not really a solution to the problems of the postcolonial plantation but at the same time a cry for deliverance from those who benefit from it and proof that the dignity of those who suffer from it is possible. Therefore, the film can and should no longer be read on the basis of irony, cynicism, narcissism, or coloniality that it at times suggests. It only makes sense in its metaphorical, symbolic, and ritualistic acceptation where tormented, a debtor tries to embody capitalism, this evil against which he wants to fight, through art and ecology. This is what makes the White Cube an artistic metaphor that attempts to express the possibility of postcolonial utopia.

This article was originally published in French

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