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IDFA 2020: White Cube

21 November 2020

J'accuse                                                                                 Renzo Martens' White Cube

Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens talks to SeeNL about his incendiary new documentary that examines the value chain within the international art world. The film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and produced by Pieter Van Huystee.

In Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens' new feature documentary White Cube (premiering both in Lusanga, Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Feature-length and Dutch competitions at IDFA) a workers' cooperative based on a former Unilever plantation make their own art. But while their sculptures are made from river mud and reproduced in cocoa and palm oil, they are exhibited at top galleries in the west.

"The germ of the idea was already in the edit of Enjoy Poverty," Dutch director Renzo Martens explains of how his 2008 documentary, in which he explored the potential economic value of poverty to the Congolese, influenced White Cube.

"Enjoy Poverty tries to take responsibility for the fact that films that are critical about economic inequality will, in the end, be exhibited mostly to well-off audiences in global cities and will bring benefit to well-off audiences rather than to the people whose stories they supposedly tell," the director highlights a paradox about art works and documentary engaging with poverty and exploitation.

While showing Enjoy Poverty at the Tate Modern in London, Martens couldn't help but notice that the Unilever symbol was plastered all over the building. The huge multinational company responsible for economic exploitation of plantations in Congo was sponsoring the gallery. In essence, Martens figured that high-minded, campaigning exhibitions were often being indirectly financed by exploited workers like those on the Congolese plantations of Unilever.

"When I visited Tate Modern, of course all the pieces fell together. Tate Modern showed all these very ambitious and famous and fantastic artists. Everybody who played a major role in the second half of the Twentieth Century was there. It was not just Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois but also really critical contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson and Ai Weiwei...very critical of climate change, repressive political systems etc. But that type of art risks being provincial and tailored to the tastes and desires of well to do people."

The aim of the Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), as the plantation workers' cooperative is called, is to make money selling art in order to buy back the land seized from them by Unilever. The director describes his film as "part of a bigger machine" to help CATPC claim back their own means of production.

How does the director (a white man in Africa who made money through Enjoy Poverty) avoid accusations of bad faith and economic exploitation himself? "I think it is a very legitimate question. My first answer is that art is embedded in these exploitative economic structures. It should simply own that, and then find ways for beautiful exhibitions at Tate Modern or screenings at IDFA to be part of the solution."

In his films the director has made a point of exposing who benefits and who doesn't. He is open about his earnings from his films. However, he also points out that he lives in social housing and drives a battered old car when he takes the kids to school. "I do not think it's about bookkeeping - it is about understanding and altering the flow of capital."

There are moments in White Cube in which Martens comes close to despair. By his own admission, he "fails miserably" when he tries to explain to academic Richard Florida, the so-called "king of gentrification," that it's wrong for New York or London to benefit from work highlighting poverty in Congo. "That ends with the scene where I break down in tears," he remembers. "In a way, it was really good that I failed because the track I was on was a really bad track. It is only afterwards, when I finally realise that it's the plantation workers who have already taken the lead in this, that the film shifts...that the film starts becoming a beautiful, loving and inclusive film. The first 30 minutes is just horror!"

Martens wants White Cube to have meaning for audiences in Lusanga. "That is very different to Enjoy Poverty. I stated clearly in Enjoy Poverty that the film was probably not going to be shown in plantations or refugee camps in Congo. I was right to say that. At the time, people in plantations or refugee camps in Congo would never ever be able to watch any film. Nobody had electricity or a phone or a TV set. This luckily has changed." One of the reasons for the change is the presence of the White Cube in Lusanga as a space for art and reflection.

The film shows Congolese sculptor Matthieu Kilapi Kasiama attending the 2017 New York exhibition of the work by him and his fellow artists. The New York Times art critics fawn over him and describe the exhibition as one of the best shows of the year. The tensions and contradictions, though, are obvious. "You cannot look at the sculptures and not think about global value chains; about chocolate and exoticising African people and the history of exoticising them; about the fact that the sculptures from these plantation zones have all been stolen and are in American and European museums," the director notes before adding: "But the sculptures themselves are extremely powerful."

Martens has no doubts about Kasiama's ability. "Anybody who wants to double guess if this is real art has to check themselves for being classist. It's very strange to think that people on plantations who do not have access to art school and all the other advantages of global cities can't be brilliant artists. Our colonial, ethnographic museums are filled to the brim with the proof that people living in plantation zones are extremely talented. They've made masterpieces for the ages."


For further reading: 
-> SEE NL Magazine Online, November 2020 / IDFA Doc issue 
-> Line-Up Dutch Docs At IDFA 2020 
-> Watch: Showreel Dutch Documentaries IDFA 2020


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