Follow the Chocolate
Visitors who smelled chocolate in the back corner of Pier 94's Focus section of New York's 2017 Armory Show, learned quickly that they were headed into the world of art and not a French bistro. Waiting for them were two near-identical sculptures of bespectacled, slightly perplexed bald men exuding a seductive smell that dominated their senses. Titled 'The Art Collector', the sculptures, presented at Pier 94 by Berlin’s KOW Gallery, were created by two Congolese plantation workers—Djong Bismar and Jérémie Mabiala.
The artists, who originally crafted the human sculptures in clay, had them digitally rendered and sent to Amsterdam. With the help of modern technology, the human shapes were 3D-printed and later "cast in their final chocolate form in a manner that mirrors the cacao production process", wrote ArtNet. In this case, the workers own the means of production and receive a far greater return on their product (7000 percent more per gram, to be precise), than their labor in the cacao fields.
Bismar and Mabiala belong to the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League), a collective founded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014 by a social activist named René Ngongo and a group of 12 local plantation workers, all in partnership with the Institute for Human Activities, a research project created by the dutch artist Renzo Martens.
“He’s the money guy, trying to decide what to do with it,” Martens said about the chocolate-covered, male capitalist known as The Art Collector. Martin has long obsessed over the question of capital flow in the art market. In 2008, he released his 'Enjoy Poverty' documentary, his self-described “moody manifesto” depicting the blatant economic inequality in the Congo. Through the film, Martens met Ngongo, who suggested the pair work on a project to address the issue.
What Is To Be Done?
This exhibit represents one of 12 artists from 10 countries that were part of the Armory Show's 'What Is To Be Done?' 2017 Focus section, curated by Jarrett Gregory.
What Is To Be Done? borrows its title from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s eponymous 1863 novel, composed while the author was imprisoned. Through constructed characters and storylines, What Is To Be Done? laid the groundwork for Russia’s socialist revolution and is considered to be one of the most influential works of Russian literature. The Focus section includes twelve artists grappling with some of the world’s most pressing social and political issues. “Each artist demonstrates an acute awareness of his or her local conditions as well as the failing structures, conflicts and ideologies that define our era,” says Gregory. “This project emerged from conversations with artists during trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Moscow, where I witnessed, among other things, the aftermath of widespread social and economic failure. Following this research, power structures have been at the forefront of my mind.”
The story of Africa's equatorial region known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo is often one of violence. On Friday Kamunina Nsapu militia fighters decapitated about 40 police officers in Central Kasai province. Parts of Congo, especially in the east, have experienced insecurity for decades, but not Kasai Central, where large-scale violence erupted in August 2016. The UN says that more than 400 people have been murdered and more than 200,000 displaced since then. The new violence is linked to local power struggles in the new province officially created in 2015, but there are also clear ties to Congo's political crisis and the refusal of President Joseph Kabila to step down after overstaying his electoral mandate.
AOC has long followed the creation of feminist Eve Ensler, Congolese doctor, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver's 'City of Joy', a story now cast as a documentary directed by first time visionary Madeleine Gavin. The film "tells of the visionaries who imagined a revolutionary place where women who have suffered horrific rape and abuse, learn to lead amidst a war driven by greed, economics and colonialism."
Owning the White Cube
Within this context, hopes run high for artists Bismar and Mabiala and the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise. On April 21, a museum space designed pro bono by Rem Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) will open to the public on the site of a former Unilever palm oil plantation in the Congolese town of Lusanga.
It brings to fruition the visions of René Ngongo and Renzo Martens. The center will support arts-minded initiatives and exhibitions including, in an inaugural campaign titled “The Repatriation of the White Cube,” the display of sculptures made of chocolate by the Congolese workers’ collective alongside artworks by Sammy Baloji, Carsten Höller, Luc Tuymans, and Marlene Dumas.
E-flux architecture writes:
Located in the heart of the plantation system and at the crossroads of global inequality and climatological change, the research center aims to become a vector for a social and ecological shift. . . .
The festive and solemn inauguration of the White Cube will mark the launch of the five-year research program of LIRCAEI. In Lusanga, the White Cube will attract both the capital and the visibility needed for plantations workers to buy back land and develop a new economic and ecological model on-site: the post-plantation.
With the establishment of LIRCAEI, the iconic modernist White Cube will be recontextualized in the setting that has historically underwritten its development. In economic terms, plantations have funded not just the building of most European and American infrastructure and industries, but also that of museums and universities. On an ideological level, the violence and brutality unfolding on one side—the plantation zones—has informed and haunted the civility, taste and aesthetics championed at the other: the White Cubes. By colliding these two opposite poles of global value chains with each other, LIRCAEI aims to overcome both the monoculture of the plantation system—that exhausts people and the environment and the sterility of the White Cube—a free haven for critique, love, and singularity, that, more often than not, reaffirms class divides.