Can an artist collective in Africa repair a colonial legacy?

As is the case with many socio-practical projects, it can seem impossible to judge Martens’ work in Lusanga from an aesthetic point of view: there is real money in circulation and people’s livelihoods are at stake. “What do you get out of saying you’re an artist?” she asked. “Primarily funding, but also freedom.” An academic would need the approval of an ethics committee, and a development worker would need demonstrable proof that their efforts were successful. “It takes some of the pressure off of making something successful,” Bishop said. “Being an artist, you could say, gets you off the hook.”

Martens was just completing a series of six short videos documenting Kasiama and Tamasala’s attempt to secure a small wooden sculpture made in Congo depicting Maximilien Balot, a Belgian colonial officer. His assassination in 1931, not far from Lusanga, sparked a revolt by the Pende, 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, instead supplying low-resolution images. With the help of some web developers in Berlin, the CATPC decided to create a non-fungible token. In February, members waited outside the White Cube at dusk while ghostly images of the sculpture — captured from a photo on the Museum of Fine Arts website — were imprinted onto the blockchain. The NFT was the collective’s first attempt to reclaim the sculpture under the Doctrine of Fair Use and, in Kasiama’s words, “reclaiming its powers” originally designed to protect the land and its people. The museum responded shortly thereafter, calling the NFT “unacceptable” and “unprofessional.” The museum is no longer considering loans.

In June, Tamasala and Kasiama attended Art Basel, where around three hundred other NFTs related to the Balot sculpture were minted. Tamasala told a reporter that the NFTs were not intended as retaliation, although the museum’s refusal was a “form of violence.” “We come from a country where there is constant war,” he said. “We don’t want war. We don’t 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 join to be able to buy more land with the funds raised by the NFTs

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. He and I met near the river bank. There was a pack of cigarettes from Tanzania on a table and Martens tried to light one with a damp match. The yoke of his shirt, worn the day before, was now torn. (Also a performance artist off duty, Martens wears long hair and tends to don the same buttoned shirts and leather shoes to traipse through Lusanga as he does when he shows up in Berlin art galleries. But what in the film like an ironic embodiment of what looks like an antiquated trope — the European gentleman in Africa — in person feels more like a sort of self-flagellation. Over the week, Martens’ costume deteriorated rapidly: collars frayed, holes appeared.)

Martens seemed both concerned and pleased with the way the article was framed, which blown a terse email exchange into what sounded like an international court case. He was struck by the sensationalism of the headline…”The dispute over a Congolese statue loan escalates into a legal battle over NFTs‘ — and unhappy about an accompanying photo of him almost a decade old.

“I have nothing to do with the guy in the picture,” Martens told me. It was recorded at an opening in Cardiff in 2014. There had been a champagne cocktail reception, he recalled. He frowned for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. He said he has changed since the photo was taken. Although he had first visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo almost twenty years ago, it was only now that he was beginning to allow himself to actually feel the sadness – “yes, ‘sadness’ is the word” – that he felt during his first trip. “The guy I see in the picture is a little jaded,” he said. “He performs, he’s quite armored.”

He lit another cigarette and continued: “I’ve stumbled upon something you might consider if you’re ignorant – what I considered because i was ignorant to some degree – “traditional rural villages”. Martens spoke of straw huts, beds of cassava, a lack of consumer goods. “You might think it natural,” he said. “You’d think that’s the way it is here.” Embodying his naïve former self, he continued, “It’s sad, sure, but the kids smile when they see you. They run to you – “Hey, mouth!’– they want a photo with you. Maybe that’s just the way it is, you think. Maybe they are happier than you. Maybe there is so much to do to learn by these people because they are in contact with nature, with their ancestors, the earth, with the gods above. Maybe you think they are outside of capitalism. Maybe they have more empathy, more love, maybe they’re actually closer to where we should all be.”

Then Martens reached a plantation. “The atmosphere is completely different,” he said. “The people are desperate.” He described fathers asking him to come to their children’s funerals, women approaching him too upset to speak. “They don’t even know how to express their feelings,” he said. “It is here.” Martens pointed to his throat and gagged in what started out as an imitation of desperation but quickly became reality. “So I am the Dude, in her eyes,” he continued. “I am the colour, I am the passport, I am the UN. It’s conceited, I know, but it’s all the same – I’m sort of the boss of the plantation for them. Because why else would I be there? Why should I be there if I wasn’t included in their life? Why would I be there if I’m not in cahoots somehow? And me am in cahoots.” Martens was crying at this point. “This contraption is killing people’s lives so easily,” he said. “It’s devilish how it’s devouring people’s lives.”

We had been talking for a couple of hours when intermittent banging started. Martens excused himself and peered over the balcony, which was covered with drying mosquito nets. Below us a man was repairing a dugout canoe. Martens asked the man if he wouldn’t mind taking a short break from his work. It was the kind of appeal I would make to a stranger at home, politely but without fear. Here, however, the gulf in circumstances between me and the hitting man made such a request seem impossible, and I was struck by Martens’ willingness to impose himself, which seemed to demonstrate more good faith and genuine camaraderie than any exuberant friendliness ever did could.

As he sat back down, he began talking about the anger he felt upon returning to Europe from Africa for the first time. His family was vacationing in France, and he came to them via Brussels, whose shiny, perfumed airport now seemed menacing to him. He had malaria and was concerned about the order and abundance of the French hospital and the perfect condition of the roads he took to get there. A kind of existential crisis set in. What was all this infrastructure worth, he thought, if not everyone had access to it? Just as no one deserves unsafe drinking water or drug-resistant tuberculosis, they do not deserve the circumstances of their own lives. He wasn’t any better or nicer than anyone else; he no longer worked. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” Martens said, realizing. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” he repeated. His voice started. “Your luck isn’t even yours because you didn’t even roll the dice yourself. That’s because generations after generations have fixed the dice.”

Hellio appeared at the top of the stairs. “We have an extensive interview about my feelings,” Martens told her. His affect was flat. Hellio expressed an interest in watching the conversation, but Martens declined. “Go away,” he said. “I feel too shy.” Hallo hesitated. “She’s a journalist,” Martens said, pointing at me and using the word like an insult. “She knows how to use empathy.” Reporting, he opined, is performative and inevitably predatory; just because we were, as he put it, “an eye-to-eye relationship,” I was able to drain emotion from him and leave without guilt. “But do that to a person on the plantation,” Martens said with a smile, “and it sucks. You’re going to feel totally screwed.”

A few days later about thirty people were sitting in a neat arrangement of plastic chairs in the shade of an acacia tree. It was morning. Nobody spoke, but it wasn’t quiet. Roosters crowed, goats bleated, mosquitoes buzzed, a kingfisher flew by like a slung gem. Although the rainy season had been underway for months, temperatures rose. People got impatient. The White Cube towers above them.

Then a murmur began that turned into threats. Plantation workers dressed as police officers stepped forward, brandishing sticks as if they were weapons. A theatrical performance in the form of a mock trial against the White Cube began. Tamasala wrote the screenplay with the collective. Kasiama approached the bench and the judge asked him to give his name for the record. In Lingala, he explained that he will represent himself for the time being as his lawyer has been held up by the area’s dilapidated roads and bridges.

“Your Honor,” said Kasiama, “I have come to this court to file a complaint against the White Cube.” He pointed to the blinding concrete cliff behind him. “This white cube owes us, the residents and workers of the plantations I represent here, a huge debt.” He looked out over the surrounding land, which was densely planted with fruit trees. “These debts,” he continued, “often ignored by the art-loving public, mask the ugliness and cruelty behind these clean-washed walls.” Kasiama’s speech was passionate. He spoke of colonialist regimes, slavery, forced labor and the apparent impossibility of reconciliation. “Your Honor,” he said, “we trust that at the end of the trial justice will be done and our rights restored.”

On the sidelines, Martens cleared his throat and began pacing. The production had only taken shape with his dim awareness in the previous months. The white cube, as he could see, played the role of museums in Europe and America, where violence and dispossession had been washed away for so long. It was a Restorative Justice performance and it was all videotaped. The collective hoped to make a film out of the play. It was hot and Martens seemed impatient. He thought the cameraman wasn’t moving enough, that his shots were too hesitant – he couldn’t catch that much. Martens stood nearby, whispering instructions, sometimes dodging the camera and trying to stay out of the picture. ♦

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