Renzo Martens and David Gianotten/OMA: the (post-)colonial dilemma

While the roof is not yet in place, the walls are already white. The opening of the OMA-designed art centre in Lusanga last April marked the repatriation of the White Cube, an icon of the western art world, to the interior of Congo. The White Cube will give plantation workers access to the international art world and legitimize their art. Renzo Martens and David Gianotten explained how in a lecture at STUK in Leuven.

White Cube, Lusanga Congo (April 2017) – photo: Michel van Dartel (Avans Expertise Centre for Art and Design / V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media)

Repatriating the White Cube
‘What have plantations and White Cubes got to do with each other?’ Artist Renzo Martens, founder of the Institute for Human Activities (IHA), and known for the 2008 film Episode III (Enjoy Poverty), started his story with a question that makes many art lovers squirm on their seats. ‘Everything!’, is his answer. Throughout history, philanthropic support for art collections and museums has often come from big companies that profited from colonial domination and the monocultures enforced on plantations in West Africa, Indonesia and the Caribbean. Small amounts of capital generated on these plantations were invested in art collections and museums. For example, the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, founded by soap giant Lever, was funded directly through plantation labour, and for years Unilever (the successor to Lever) supported the Turbine Hall installations at the Tate Modern.

The White Cube is the perfect place to isolate art from the economic and political conditions in which it was originally created. In this completely white space, art can be presented and reviewed under its own conditions. One of these conditions is that it does not have to relate directly to the financial structures that make the White Cube possible. That turns these serene spaces into sanctuaries for what Martens refers to as ‘critique, love, and singularity.’ He sees the financial support of commercial enterprises for museums as an attempt to create space in which society could, and still can, escape from the violence and evils of the plantations. That’s why you come across the dominant White Cubes far away from plantations, not close to them.

White Cube – diagram by OMA

Engaged art is not enough!
The relation between art and worldwide economic inequality is still a controversial issue. While many artists complain about the inequality, they mostly do this in a context that is financed through labour in low-wage countries. The criticism and engagement of artists, therefore, has no effect on the places concerned. They actually continue to support the inequality and contribute to gentrification, economic and material growth in certain places around the world. This brings us to the heart of Martens’ work. With the founding of the IHA he wants to create an effect in the place itself by setting in motion a process of ‘reverse gentrification’ aimed at getting capital to flow back into the plantations. Martens travelled to Kinshasa with the aim of taking responsibility and rectifying artistic criticism of economic inequality not symbolically but materially. He encouraged current and former plantation workers to express their feelings in works of art and to form an art collective.

In Lusanga, once called Leverville, a historically loaded place, the IHA and the CATPC (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise ‒ the artist collective set up by the plantation workers) founded the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI) on a former Unilever plantation. The CATPC artists achieved success with an exhibition of their art at the SculptureCenter in Queens, New York City. The clay sculptures made by the artists in Congo were scanned, uploaded, downloaded and in Amsterdam reproduced in cacao, a product that originates in these and many other West African plantations. ‘It was a success,’ says Martens. ‘Artists who stand at the bottom of global value chains, and are expected to stay silent, could suddenly present their art at the SculptureCenter and make their voice heard.’

Expositie Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, SculptureCenter, New York (2017) – photo Kyle Knodell

The exhibition at the SculptureCenter and the construction of the White Cube clearly show the hypocrisy not only of global value chains and the western art system, but also of Martens’ own activity in Lusanga. This is often held against him. He is guilty of very market-driven strategies that he criticizes! But if you agree with this accusation, you ignore what is actually exposed. By ambiguously using the desire for engagement, the commitment to developing low-wage countries and the criticism of prevailing art structures, Martens is revealing, on a cutting edge, the dilemma of the (post-)colonial western world: the firm belief in the modern project of progress on the one hand and, on the other, the realization that this cannot be imposed forcefully. It is this dilemma, the choice between two equally undesirable alternatives, that heightens the discomfort.

Given this context, it is no surprise that Martens approached OMA to design the White Cube. For the office is always interested in designing buildings that expose the opposing forces and ideals of society. ‘We build for everybody,’ says David Gianotten, ‘from democracies to non-democracies, because we think we need this tension in our portfolio to remain unique and to be able to generate unique ideas. The controversy of working for former plantation workers or for Unilever creates no conflict whatsoever for me.’ OMA considers every project to be a form of criticism and thus believes that architecture is capable of bringing progress and improvement. This is shown in the highly modernist master plan developed by OMA for LIRCAEI.

masterplan OMA

The master plan is aimed at developing a (post-)plantation to replace the exhausted plantation. The plan retains the functions of the site activated by Martens (studio and meeting place), but divides the site into three zones: nature (wild and cultivated), places for dialogue and production (conference centre & studio), and village life itself (homes). The White Cube is located in the zone of dialogue and production. Gianotten opted to avoid a closed, introvert White Cube, in favour of one with openings that set up a confrontation with the context. That context is the (post-)plantation. The view of the (post-)plantation from the White Cube should, according to Gianotten, help to formulate criticism by bringing the context into the exhibition space.

So we have come full circle. Martens’ project shows that ‘post’ is actually ‘neo’. He needed OMA to put his project on the map, because a local architect would not have been able to achieve this effect. The critical undertaking of repatriating the White Cube and the plan to redevelop the plantation can just as easily be seen as a neo-colonial act that had to be confirmed by an architecture studio that would ask no questions and unscrupulously increase the post-colonial dilemma for the visitor.