Can an Artists’ Collective in Africa Repair a Colonial...

Can an Artists’ Collective in Africa Repair a Colonial Legacy?


Conditions at Leverville’s plantations were atrocious. Fires were set at the base of palm trees to force harvesters to climb faster; quotas were enforced with whips made from rhinoceros hide. Children were put to work. A Belgian medical officer visiting the site in 1923 called it “deplorable.” Six years later, Lever Brothers merged with a Dutch company to form Unilever.

As is the case with many social-practice projects, she went on, judging Martens’s work in Lusanga on aesthetic terms can feel impossible: there is real money circulating, and people’s livelihoods are at stake. “What does one get by saying they are an artist?” she asked. “Funding, primarily, but also freedom.” An academic would need approval from an ethics board, an aid worker demonstrable proof that his efforts were successful. “It takes some of the pressure off of making something succeed,” Bishop said. “Being an artist, you could say, gets you off the hook.”

Martens was finishing a series of six short videos documenting Kasiama and Tamasala’s attempt to secure the loan of a small wooden sculpture, made in Congo, depicting Maximilien Balot, a Belgian colonial officer. His killing, in 1931, not far from Lusanga, sparked a revolt of the Pende people, hundreds of whom were subsequently killed by gunfire. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the sculpture, had declined to lend it to the White Cube for the foreseeable future, supplying low-resolution images instead. With the help of some Web developers in Berlin, the C.A.T.P.C. decided to create a non-fungible token. In February, members waited outside the White Cube at dusk while ghostly images of the sculpture—taken from a photograph on the Museum of Fine Arts’s Web site—were minted on the blockchain. The N.F.T. was the collective’s arch attempt to take back the sculpture under the doctrine of fair use and, in Kasiama’s words, “reclaim its powers,” which were originally to protect the land and its people. Shortly afterward, the museum responded, calling the N.F.T. “unacceptable” and “unprofessional.” The museum is no longer considering a loan.

In June, Tamasala and Kasiama attended Art Basel, where some three hundred more N.F.T.s related to the Balot sculpture were minted. Tamasala told a reporter that, though the museum’s loan refusal was “a form of violence,” the N.F.T.s were not meant as an act of retribution. “We come from a country that has perpetual war,” he said. “We don’t want war. We do not want to oppose the museum. We are not here to have a conflict with them. The only thing we want is to rekindle a relationship with the sculpture.” When I spoke to Tamasala and Kasiama two weeks later, they were in the Netherlands with Martens, preparing to fly back to Lusanga, where they hoped to buy more land with funds raised from the N.F.T.s.

A short article about the project appeared in the Guardian, and one morning the community’s solar panels were working well enough to provide electricity for Martens to read it. He and I convened near the riverbank. A package of Tanzanian cigarettes sat on a table, and Martens struggled to light one with a damp match. The yoke of his shirt, which had been threadbare the day before, was now torn. (A performance artist even when off duty, Martens wears his hair long and tends to sport the same button-up shirts and leather shoes to traipse around Lusanga as he does when popping into Berlin art galleries. But what on film looks like an ironic embodiment of an antiquated trope—the European gentleman in Africa—in person comes across as something more like self-flagellation. In the course of the week, Martens’s costume deteriorated rapidly: collars frayed, holes appeared.)

Martens seemed both distressed and delighted by the framing of the article, which inflated a terse e-mail exchange into what sounded like an international court case. He was struck by the sensationalism of the headline—“Row About Congolese Statue Loan Escalates Into Legal Battle Over NFTs”—and unhappy about an accompanying photograph of himself, which was almost a decade old.

“I don’t associate with the guy in the picture,” Martens told me. It had been taken in 2014, at an opening in Cardiff. There had been a cocktail reception with champagne, he remembered. He furrowed his brow for a moment, unsure how to proceed. He said that, since the photograph was taken, he had changed. Though he had first visited the D.R.C. almost twenty years ago, only now was he beginning to allow himself to actually experience the grief—“Yes, ‘grief’ is the word”—that he felt during his initial trip. “The guy that I see in the picture is a little bit jaded,” he said. “He’s performing, he’s quite armored.”

He lit another cigarette and continued, “I encountered what you could consider, if you’re ignorant—what I considered, because I was ignorant, to some degree—‘traditional rural villages.’ ” Martens spoke of thatched huts, manioc patches, a lack of consumer products. “You could consider it natural,” he said. “You could think, This is just how people live here.” Impersonating his naïve former self, he went on, “It’s sad, sure, but the children smile when they see you. They run to you—‘Hey, mundele!’—they want a picture with you. So maybe it’s just the way it is, you think. Maybe they’re happier than you. Maybe there’s so much to learn from these people, because they are in touch with nature, with their ancestors, the earth, with the gods above. Maybe you think they’re outside of capitalism. Maybe they have more empathy, more love, maybe they’re actually closer to the state that we should all be in.”

Then Martens arrived at a plantation. “The atmosphere is completely different,” he said. “The people are desperate.” He described fathers pleading for him to come to their children’s funerals, women approaching him and finding themselves too upset to speak. “They don’t know how to even voice their emotions,” he said. “It’s here.” Martens pointed to his throat and gagged in what began as an imitation of despair but quickly became the real thing. “So I’m the guy, in their eyes,” he went on. “I’m the skin color, I’m the passport, I’m the U.N. It’s imaginary, I know that, but, still, it’s all the same—I’m the boss of the plantation to them, somehow. Because why else would I be there? Why would I be there if I wasn’t included in their lives? Why would I be there if I wasn’t somehow in cahoots? And I am in cahoots.” Martens was crying by this point. “This apparatus just disposes of people’s lives so easily,” he said. “It’s devilish, the way it consumes people’s lives.”

We had been talking for a few hours when an intermittent banging began. Martens excused himself and peered over the balcony, which was heaped with drying mosquito netting. Below us, a man was making repairs to a dugout canoe. Martens asked the man if he wouldn’t mind taking a short break from his work. It was the sort of appeal I’d make of a stranger at home, politely but without anxiety. Here, though, the chasm in circumstances between me and the banging man made such a request feel impossible, and I was impressed with Martens’s willingness to impose, which seemed to demonstrate more good faith and genuine camaraderie than any effusive kindness ever could.

When he sat down again, he began to talk about the anger he felt upon returning from Africa to Europe for the first time. His family was on vacation in France, and he joined them by way of Brussels, whose gleaming, perfumed airport now struck him as menacing. He had malaria, and was disturbed by the order and the abundance of the French hospital, and by the perfect conditions of the roads he took to get there. An existential crisis of sorts set in. What was all this infrastructure worth, he thought, if not everyone had access to it? Just as nobody deserved unclean drinking water or drug-resistant tuberculosis, he did not deserve the circumstances of his own life. He wasn’t any better or nicer than anyone else; he didn’t work any harder. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” Martens said he realized. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” he repeated. His voice caught. “Your luck is not even your own, because you didn’t even roll the dice yourself. It’s because generations upon generations fixed the dice.”

Hellio appeared at the top of the stairs. “We’re having an in-depth interview about my emotions,” Martens told her. His affect was flat. Hellio expressed interest in observing the conversation, but Martens refused. “Go away,” he said. “I feel too shy.” Hellio hesitated. “She’s a journalist,” Martens said, pointing at me and pronouncing the word like a slur. “She knows how to employ empathy.” Reporting, he meant, was performative and necessarily predatory; only because ours was “an equal power relationship,” as he put it, could I extract emotions from him and leave without guilt. “But do this with a person on the plantation,” Martens said, smiling, “and it’s completely fucked. You will feel completely fucked.”

A few days later, beneath the shade of an acacia tree, some thirty people sat in a neat arrangement of plastic chairs. It was morning. Nobody spoke, but it was not quiet. Roosters crowed, goats bleated, mosquitoes buzzed, a kingfisher darted by like a flung jewel. Though the rainy season had been under way for months, the temperature was rising. People were growing impatient. The White Cube towered overhead.

Then a murmuring began, which coalesced into threats. Plantation workers dressed as policemen stepped forward, brandishing sticks as though they were weapons. A theatrical production, taking the form of a mock trial of the White Cube, was beginning. Tamasala had written the script with the collective. Kasiama approached the bench, and the judge asked him to state his name for the record. Speaking in Lingala, he explained that he would be representing himself for the time being, since his lawyer had been delayed by the region’s derelict roads and bridges.

“Your Honor,” Kasiama said, “I have come before this court to file a complaint against the White Cube.” He pointed up toward the blinding cliff of concrete behind him. “This White Cube owes us, the inhabitants and workers of the plantations, whom I represent here, a huge debt.” He looked out across the surrounding land, which was planted thickly with fruit trees. “This debt,” he continued, “often ignored by the art-loving public, camouflages the ugliness and cruelty behind these cleanly washed walls.” Kasiama’s speech was impassioned. He spoke of colonialist regimes, slavery, forced labor, and the seeming impossibility of reconciliation. “Your Honor,” he said, “we have faith that, at the end of the process, justice will be done and our rights restored.”

At the periphery of the proceedings, Martens cleared his throat and began to pace. The production had taken shape in the previous months, with only his dim awareness. The White Cube, as he could see, was playing the role of museums in Europe and America, where violence and dispossession had for so long been laundered. It was a performance of restorative justice, and it was all being video-recorded. The collective hoped to turn the play into a film. It was hot, and Martens seemed impatient. He thought that the cameraman was not moving around enough, that his shots were too tentative—he was failing to capture so much. Martens stood close, whispering directions, sometimes dodging the camera, trying to stay out of the frame. ♦

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