The Repatriation of the White Cube – the CATPC in Congo

While reading the Dutch newspaper NRC from 27 April 2017, I came across an image of white cube with Afrian people around. I was curious to know more about this. My recent research on modern art and the rise of MoMA as an influential cultural institution that led the art world since Alfred Barr’s curated exhibition of ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ in 1936 made me wonder of the intention of this. I became more critical with respect to the position of power of modern art museums. The ‘white cube’ became a sign and symbol for a certain perspective on the art world (see: Cottington, 2005)

from NRC - 27 April 2017 - Renzo Martens

from NRC – 27 April 2017 – Renzo Martens

The article describes what it is about. A key message is ‘The repatriation of the White Cube‘. A clear indication of post colonialism and relating to the system of plantation production of cocao for the western world chocolate. The White Cube – a museum space –  was installed on a former Unilever plantage (cocoa) and shows now works by local artists organized in the local art association of Congoles plantation workers (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise – CATPC). Workers who harvest materials for international companies.

Renzo Martens is the initiator of the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) which is a research project with the goal to ‘prove that artistic critique on economic inequality can redress it – not symbolically, but in material terms’. This institute works together with the CATPC and the established together a research center in Lusanga, Congo (the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality – LIRCAEI) whose goal is to diversify the local economy through critical artistic engagement. The IHA facilitates and support the global dissemination of artworks created with the CATPC. Profits from those activities go back to Congo in order to support the local artists and their families.

The information on the webpage of LIRCAEI

“For decades, plantations have been violently exploited for the benefit of remote shareholders. The immense wealth generated was partially invested in art institutions devoted to critique, love and aesthetics.

With the establishment of LIRCAEI, the mechanisms through which plantations underwrite the art world will be reversed. In Lusanga, the White Cube will attract both the capital and the visibility needed to to transform exploitative plantations into inclusive and ecological post-plantations.”

Main questions that are raised in this article are: What is the goal of the White Cube in Congo? How relevant are the re-patriation claims? What is the economical relavance of culture? What is the place of the local community in global economy? How can they change the plantation system?

For the local community is it important to find a solution of inclusion in a post-plantage system.

The workers and artists of the CATPC created sculptures that were later casted in chocolate in Europe and were in March 2017 on show in New York at the Armory Show. The webpage explains that the ‘sculptures .. confront the trauma of colonialism. 

from: CATPC Project by Renzo Martens at the Armory Show

Overall, the project and initiatives do want to question to role and value-system of art in society.

Reflection:

  • White Cube became the symbol per se for art and culture. For me it resembles quite a myth in Barthes’ sense. The White Cube as a form for an idea of new, local culture that still contains the ambiguity of the former meaning as sign for Western museum culture (alongside the consumerism and capitalistic notion)
  • The White Cube is a strong sign / symbol for what art was and is in Western societies. Museums so far took value from the plantation systems. The idea of ‘repatriation’ of the White Cube is ambiguous. It questions whether the White Cube should be considered as a Western ‘colonial’ cultural value or whether it can act as new perspective for local cultures. For me it seems somehow in between, a link perhaps relevant to raise awareness, on the long run perhaps to be exchanged with a more appriopriate local cultural ‘sign’.
  • I only captured a brief idea about this project and possible impact. I feel that I could dig much deeper into it. Nevertheless, I do feel that with a more critical read of some articles alongside some background research I can learn and understand much better visual culture. I am very excited to find areas in the future that I can leverage for my own work.

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