The White Cube

The White Cube

Visitors to the temples of modern art in global cities will be familiar with the white cube gallery space. But when one arises in the middle of a Congolese palm oil plantation, the effect is deeply disorienting. Furthermore, it draws attention to the often overlooked ties between colonialism and the art world, for example, through the multinationals that now proudly sponsor these Western museums.

This Congolese arts center is part of artist Renzo Martens’s unorthodox plan to jump-start the local economy. Former workers at the plantation make sculptures that are reproduced in chocolate, and then exhibited in New York. The plantation workers, most of whom earn a dollar or less a day, use the profits from this successful exhibition to buy back the land confiscated from them by Unilever.

This documentary sees Martens continue on from Enjoy Poverty (2008), in which he encouraged impoverished African people to use photography to exploit their own suffering. On that occasion however, the film established that the local population earned nothing from their efforts. This new film documents an attempt to reverse the flow of wealth and use the privileges associated with the art world to bring about real change.


Pieter Vermeulen: In 2019 verscheen een reader over Enjoy Poverty met bijdragen van diverse auteurs, sommigen van hen leggen jouw werk op de rooster. Als ik het boek lees, lijkt het tevens perfect relevant voor White Cube, ook al werd het eerder gepubliceerd. Waar ligt jouw finaliteit, bij kunst of bij kritiek?

Renzo Martens: (denkt lang na) Kunst, denk ik. Maar niet alle kunst. Ik vind kunst enkel interessant als het … (lange stilte) als het de wereld kan omdraaien, als het waardesystemen doorlicht en omkeert. Dat streven past op zich netjes binnen het regime van kritische kunst, maar ik vrees dat veel kunst toch steriel blijft.

Wat gebeurt in White Cube, is dat kritische kunst ingezet wordt als magische staf en dat een club van voormalige plantagearbeiders (Matthieu Kassiama, Irene Kanga, Mbuku Kimpala, Ced’art Tamasala ...) er hun ding mee doet. Hun sculpturen werken in vele verschillende opzichten, maar vooral ook omdat ze gewoon heel goed zijn. Valt hun kunst daarmee ook in het regime van kritische kunst? Ik denk het wel. Bijna elke sculptuur die ze maken is een verhaal met een bepaalde moraliteit. Zij zullen dat feilloos weten uit te leggen. Voor mij ligt de moraliteit – en artistieke kwaliteit – van het werk er ook in dat ze er hun land mee kunnen terugkopen. Het draait de wereld om.

Pieter Vermeulen in gesprek met Renzo Martens1


“For poverty, as Renzo Martens concedes to the Congolese en passant, is not merely a curse but ‘a gift given for the better understanding of life;’ so it is worthwhile to give this gift to the World. Subsequently, the blacks are no longer simply beggars, but proud bearers of a gift that renders an ‘emotional service’ to those privileged enough to belong to the World. And this is what, in simple terms, RM shares with the Africans in awe of his panel of neon letters ‘ENJOY please POVERTY’: “the experience of your suffering makes me a better person. You’re really doing me a favour, merci beaucoup.’”

Frank Vande Veire on Renzo Martens’ Enjoy Poverty (2008)2


“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.”

Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka3


“Yet, White Cube never clarifies why Martens believes it is progressive for landless labourers to have to raise money to buy back land that was stolen from them and, ultimately, perpetuates the very form of exploitation that the artist is criticizing. Founding the Lusanga post-plantation on a logic of ownership that reifies colonial theft within a supposedly forward-thinking art project is ‘anti-politics’, to use a term coined by American anthropologist James Ferguson.  In his seminal The Anti-Politics Machine (1994), Ferguson concluded that ‘development’ work in 1980’s Lesotho unintentionally depoliticized resource allocation and intensified bureaucracy. Even when politically charged like Martens’s, art suffers from a similar impasse, easily misapprehending longstanding patterns of political power and entrenched materiality.”

Eric Otieno Sumba4

UPDATED ON 11.06.2021