On April 21, in the Congolese wilderness, was a special ceremony; a new OMA-designed building set ablaze, draped in a white fishing net. While what followed was more traditional – performances, discussions, music, dancing and a feast – there is nothing typical about this new art institution.
On the unlikely site of a former palm oil plantation, the white cube exhibition space and research centre is the brainchild of the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI), a joint initiative of the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs De Plantation Congolaise (the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League/CATPC) and the Amsterdam-based Institute for Human Activities (IHA).
The high culture (and arguably first-world-catering) venue is located in an area where the average family income is just $20-30 per month and more specifically, on a plot historically defined by colonial labour. IHA founder and Dutch artist Renzo Martens justifies the build by saying that LIRCAEI is proposing a reversal of the flow of global cultural capital, but is the move out of touch and despite its goodwill, still perpetuating the original issue?
Digging into the history of the new site, there are convoluted and problematic connections to the contemporary art world and the systems which sustain it. British soap company Lever Brothers confiscated the land in 1911 under Belgian colonial rule and turned it into a forced labour plantation. The resulting profits funded the art collection of Lord William Hesketch Lever, then utilised in the philanthropic art world efforts of modern day Unilever.
It is hard to dismiss how the opening of this white cube – championed (and to a degree, rightly so) as undermining the structures which previously prevented this form of venue in Lusanga – is ultimately derived from the colonial exploitation which formed it. Martens describes his efforts as a “reverse gentrification project” and explained, “If critical art can attract capital and create hipster towns, then we have an obligation to figure out where, with whom, and for what it’s going to be.” Intentions aside, it is still a higher-power, international organisation coming in to reap profit from the landscape.
The inaugural exhibition at LIRCAEI, titled The Repatriation of the White Cube, features artists such as Irene Kanga, Mathieu Kasiama, Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas – a mix of creators with direct plantation experience alongside blue-chip names. Technically it plays both sides through its artist, but it is still a commercial entity way out of the league of its local audience. Stipulating it will have a create-the-demand effect and draw international collectors and patrons, Marten added further justification by saying that art that addresses global inequality and critiques capitalism is only effective when presented in outsider venues. It needs to happen in low-income, third-world locales so that it can draw attention to the world in question and, theoretically, generate cultural capital there.
“Culture and the arts are not simply an important dimension of social well-being, they are also a factor in economic development,” said René Ngongo, environmental and political activist and president of the CATPC. Simultaneously using the white cube as a tool for economic growth as well as liberating institution critique, Marten said, there have been tangible results. Some of the works on display sold on the international art market have contributed to the local artists’ livelihoods, as well as providing a living for 60 individuals associated with the activities of the CATPC. The exhibition space “provides a glimmer of hope for a post-conflict country and an agro-ecological zone that passively watched on as Unilever collapsed and as its infrastructures progressively fell into decay,” Ngongo continued.
Intentions may be pure – LIRCAEI capital aims to allow plantation workers to repurchase the land and create sustainable “post-plantations” – but it doesn’t change the fact higher-level, outsider institutions are what caused this problem in the first place.
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