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IDFA 2020

Review: White Cube

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- Renzo Martens’ much-anticipated sequel to Enjoy Poverty explores what the art world can give back to former Congolese plantation workers

Review: White Cube

Ensuring that a decent level of value is once again placed on people who work the land is something that resonates with contemporary ideas of sustainability. That art can be a means of doing so, however, might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Dutch artist Renzo Martens proves it can in his film White Cube [+see also:
interview: Renzo Martens
film profile
]
. In his much-anticipated sequel to Enjoy Poverty (2008), he goes full circle as he reveals how the working class can benefit from art, instead of being victimised by it: reversed gentrification in DR Congo is the result. White Cube premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in the Main Competition and the Competition for Best Dutch Documentary.

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The film explores the neocolonial mechanisms that cause a one-sided accumulation of wealth, just as in Enjoy Poverty, in which the director held up an uncomfortable mirror to the viewer, who took on a neocolonial role him- or herself. This time, he is more serious in his tone. Perhaps it is because his work led him to realise that he also benefits from this system; when Martens screened Enjoy Poverty at the Tate Modern in 2012, he noticed that Unilever was a major sponsor at the time. The Dutch-British multinational has exploited massive parts of DR Congo with its palm-oil plantations. These exhibition halls, or white cubes, are indirectly financed by plantation workers’ blood, sweat and tears. He then embarked upon another project: a new conceptual framework constructed around the unsuspecting Congolese plantation workers. As soon as he urges the workers of Lusanga to stick their hands in the clay, the artist’s collective Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) is born.

The film has a heartfelt quality, and one can feel the sincerity with which Martens sets out to tie together the seemingly overly distant ends of these different worlds. It all seems to fit, in a way, and when the new artists’ work gives us a glimpse of their inner worlds, the stories of exploitation become more tangible. The explicit sculptures they create resemble the stories of their ancestors, and reek of injustice. It is touching to see how the art empowers these people and lifts them in an upward spiral of self-development. This reaches a climax when artist Matthieu Kassiama travels to New York to visit a CATPC exhibition, and starts hugging and kissing their sculptures when he sees them in the gallery. A sense of achievement is intertwined with the question of how inclusive the art world, and our society, actually is. At the exhibition, the press ask Kassiama whether he has seen much art before, and we all know the answer. This is highlighted further as he later visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewing Congolese art that was stolen in colonial times.

The white cube’s smooth, white walls and rigidity make for a magnificent contrast between the Congolese jungle and the world they are trying to reclaim; nevertheless, does its construction make sense after Martens’ plea? Can a museum also attract capital when it is situated in Lusanga, DR Congo? The film concludes with a hopeful glimpse of the CATPC’s agroforestry project on the depleted land surrounding the museum. And yes, it is fully funded by their art. It leaves us with an intimate sense of hope. As the credits roll, we realise we have never seen the interior of the white cube itself. Art is what we decide it is, anyway. Perhaps it was never really about art at all.

White Cube was produced by Pieter van Huystee Film (Netherlands) and co-produced by Inti Films (Belgium).

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