In another world, Black artist would be able to create, primarily, for audiences with whom they share a culture. But today, more often than not, they are assimilated into, and made legible within, the Western visual regime. This has certainly been the case for the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (abbreviated CATPC for the group’s French name, Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise), a collective, established in 2014, of artists and agricultural workers who create sculptures made of chocolate; a number of them are employed on plantations owned by the multinational corporation Unilever, where they grow cacao. Their sculptures are made of material at once ready-at-hand and powerfully symbolic. The specter of the non-native cacao plant’s violent history haunts the region, and also the use of chocolate in CATPC’s work.
Congolese cacao has been used to produce Belgian chocolate since the nineteenth century, though Europeans were first introduced to chocolate during Spain’s colonial conquest of Central America three centuries prior. “Cacao” is a Hispanization of words in languages native to Central America, including cacahuatl in Nahuatl and kakaw in Maya, Tzeltal, and K’iche’. Between 1885 and 1908, Belgian King Leopold II used the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo as his personal plantation for materials including rubber and ivory; he also seeded acres of cacao trees across the territory. During that time, the colony was called the Congo Free State, and belonged to the king personally; he used the land as a means to accumulate personal wealth. His brutal methods killed an estimated ten million Congolese people, and after facing opposition from an international humanitarian campaign, he was forced to cede control of his colony to the Belgian parliament.¹
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Collective collaborator Eléonore Hellio (a white French artist now based in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa) describes the group’s sculptures as “self-representations,” depictions of the workers themselves and their ancestors, synthesizing “the multigenerational knowledge of the people making them.” While the cacao that goes into their works is a mundane part of agricultural life, in these works, it is imbued with what Hellio calls the “the vision, the thoughts, the emotions of some of the workers who harvest [it].”² In 2017, the collective’s sculptures and drawings made their United States debut in an exhibition at SculptureCenter in New York. The figurative sculptures take arrestingly expressive forms, variously grotesque, surreal, and non-naturalistic. Works are made by individual members, though they share some common themes and stylistic aspects. Thomas Leba’s Poisonous Miracle (2015) depicts a hunched woman who displays a pained, contorted face as a lizard-like beast bites her foot; Mbuku Kimpala’s Self- Portrait without Clothes (2014) is an almost playful seated nude with splayed legs.
While, at first glance, it seems that the group is concerned with self-representation, the collective’s origin story troubles that narrative, as does the process by which the sculptures were made. Jérémie Mabiala and Djonga Bismar’s The Art Collector (2015) doesn’t depict the workers or their ancestors; rather, it takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the bald, bespectacled, and suited titular subject. The figure’s humorous, strained facial expression evokes yelling or direction- giving, and also happens to resemble a medieval representation of a demon.
The collective emerged out of sculpture workshops led by Hellio and fellow Kinshasa-based artists Mega Mingiedi and Michel Ekeba at the Institute for Human Activities (IHA). According to its website, the IHA, a research project organized by Dutch artist Renzo Martens, aims to “prove that artistic critique [of] economic inequality can bypass it not symbolically, but in material terms.” The group put out an open call for Congolese artists, and in Hellio’s words, “tried to select people who had a strong vision of their world and of their living conditions.”³ They wanted a cohesive group. At the time of the 2017 show, the collective consisted of nine men and two women, ranging in age from 20 to 85.4 The membership body is curated, but the individual artists alone decide on the titles and subject matter of their artworks. The artists first sculpt their works with local clay, then send 3D scans to the Netherlands, where molds are printed. Finally, in Amsterdam, the works are cast in chocolate—often chocolate that’s been donated by the European confectionary conglomerate Barry Callebaut.
With the IHA as an anchor, Martens and the CATPC co-created the Lusanga International Research Center for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI). The cultural cornerstone of this initiative is the White Cube, a white structure designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The White Cube, named by Martens, was built on a former Unilever plantation in Lusanga in 2017. LIRCAEI was founded with the goal of exposing inequalities by focusing on marginalized communities whose exploited labor is the foundational link in global supply chains. It is difficult for agricultural workers to support their families and survive on their low wages, so the art they produce in the Congo and sell in the West doubles as both a vehicle for creative expression and a mode of economic empowerment. The proceeds from works sold (as well as external funding for the IHA) go back to the collective, which votes on its use for land purchases and other goals. Martens, in partnership with Congolese environmentalist René Ngongo (the collective’s president), envisions this cycle as a kind of self-sustaining “post-plantation” economy. But is Martens proposing a circulation of resources that is really less exploitative than the plantation?
“Plantationocene,” like “capitalocene,” is one of theorist Donna Haraway’s proposed alternatives to the term “anthropocene.” She argues that our present epoch is not centered on humans as a species, but rather on profit-making structures that facilitate a “devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations” reliant on exploitative labor.5 The term “plantation worker” calls to mind a very specific labor relation rooted in domination, whereas the more open-ended “farmer” could refer to a cultivator with agency, who may own some or all of the land tended. (The distinction between the two modes of labor, of course, is not so discrete.) Though Martens sees CATPC as an attempt to disrupt local planter politics, the group does not necessarily seem to be about the artists, but rather Martens’s own humanitarian posturing. While he seeks to expose some shocking truths about the origins of a delectable treat and to use the artists as a metaphor for inequali audities more generally, the sculptures themselves convey more mundane and revealing aspects of the workers’ day-to-day lives, memories, ideas, and experiences.
In his 2008 feature film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, we see Martens trying to teach a group of Congolese wedding and portrait photographers how to monetize their most abundant resource: their own poverty. With an unnervingly sober and dispassionate instruction, Martens attempts to parody the market for pornographic images of African poverty: he lectures on what kind of images to take, and details how much money foreign news outlets might pay for different types of images. A picture of an impossibly malnourished child with visible ribs is just one kind of money shot, he tells them.
Martens’s presence in the film can be described as strikingly aloof: he comes off as more concerned with his own documentary than with the Congolese people he encounters. He’s helping them help him while helping them help themselves. One of the earliest scenes in the film shows Martens coolly watching a plantation worker hand each of his children a single cracker as he explains how he struggles to feed them. The worker even shows Martens his restless daughter’s denuded genitals while telling him how her hunger makes her unable to sleep at night. I can almost hear Martens thinking: “Money shot.”
Mining poverty for profit demands a kind of subsumption— a colonial one, to be clear—of the native gaze and sensibility, which Martens molds in order to make African perspectives legible to Western audiences. The images that the Congolese photographers produce under his instruction convey an accurate depiction of the world that surrounds them, but his directions omit other realities that stereotypes about Black suffering deliberately obscure: joy, families, birthday parties. There is certainly widespread suffering, but who benefits from the curated images that tell a single story? Gayatri Spivak’s term “strategic essentialism” describes how minoritized and marginalized groups adopt historically denigrating stereotypes as a mode of resistance and source of strategic power.6 The positioning of the CATPC within arts discourse emphasizes their poverty in an effort to subvert the market operations that keep poor Africans poor. The artists may earn additional income, but what is the relationship between economic empowerment and realism, if African artists are exclusively producing and even staging atrocity images, as they did in Martens’s documentary?
The photographers get higher prices for their work when they give in to racist paternalism, thanks to the almost gleeful eagerness with which Western audiences consume images of African suffering. “A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism,” culture writer Mark Fisher contended. Capitalist realism describes a post–Cold War political imagination, one that forecloses political alternatives to capitalism and applies capitalist market logic to all aspects of our world, including artistic production. The horror of this political epoch, Fisher wrote, is how difficult it has become to imagine alternatives beyond capitalism, since it “has colonized the dreaming life of the population.”7
For Martens, there seems a potential for prosperity in these photographers’ self-objectification that reproduces the logic of the very plantation site he seeks to transcend. Art-making supplements the incomes of the agricultural workers, but just as the high drama of the baroque period and some European movements was supported in part by the economic gains of transatlantic enslavement, it is the plantationocene that enables this economic enterprise. This method of intervention at the source of the global supply chain, one that Martens curiously describes as “reverse gentrification” (the return of much-needed resources to the area that has been long subject to parasitic colonial extractions), was not initiated by and for Congolese people. Martens reinscribes a familiar colonialist flow of money and power in the Global South’s production of a luxury good for the Global North whose profits trickle back to the Global South, the product and the process this time disguised as “empowering.”
I am inclined to agree with Fisher’s argument that visual artists are not capable of totally subverting capitalist forms. But more urgently, I seriously question the motivations of white artists when their artistic interventions endeavoring to undermine racial capitalism instrumentalize Black people and Black suffering. Is this not—like the spectacular nude photographs expressing Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual obsession with Black men—a kind of chattelization or saviorism, even if it produced some economic benefit?
When Gustave Courbet wrote in his 1861 realist manifesto that “each epoch must have its artists who express it and reproduce it for the future,” he was probably not suggesting that white artists and curators literally reproduce social and political injustice by re-creating exploitative global supply chains in their purportedly socially engaged practices. Martens himself claims that Enjoy Poverty “doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad.”8 According to literature scholar Andrew Ryder, parody, the form Martens attempts in his film, is at its worst when it invokes a kind of nihilism that relies on “shock value rather than any clear parodic thesis,” when it does not go beyond raw replication.9 Maybe this clumsiness, the complicated interaction of white art world cynicism and Black labor and disadvantage, is realism’s manifestation in the present. Which is to say, that where Blackness is en vogue and atrocity images are a hot commodity (or where Westerners feel compelled to interact with continental African life and art primarily through the lens of suffering), it becomes difficult to produce a commentary or satire that does not read almost identically to the quotidian flows of violence.
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1 For a history of the atrocities committed by King Leopold II, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Boston, Mariner Books, 1998.
2 Hellio quoted in Casey Lesser, “Congolese Plantation Workers Are Making a Living Selling Chocolate Sculptures to the Art World,” artsy.net, Feb 1, 2017.
3 Hellio quoted in Randy Kennedy, “Chocolate Sculpture, With a Bitter Taste of Colonialism,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2017, nytimes.com.
4 The plantation workers’ names are: Djonga Bismar, Mathieu Kilapi Kasiama, Cedrick Tamasala, Mbuku Kimpala, Mananga Kibuila, Jérémie Mabiala, Emery Mohamba, and Thomas Leba.
5 Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6, 2015, p. 162.
6 In a 1993 interview, Spivak described giving up strategic essentialism as a phrase, noticing it had been used in ways she did not intend. See: Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” boundary, vol. 2, no. 20, 1993, pp. 24-50.
7 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, London, Zero Books, 2009, pp. 16, 8. 6 Martens interviewed by Joe Penney, “Enjoy Poverty,” Africa Is a Country, July 16, 2010, www.africasacountry.com.
8 Martens interviewed by Joe Penney, “Enjoy Poverty,” Africa Is a Country, July 16, 2010, www.africasacountry.com.
9 Andrew Ryder, “Charlie Hebdo and the Limits of Nihilism,” Warscapes, Jan. 19, 2015, warscapes.com.
This article appears under the title “Plantation Politics” in the September/October issue, pp. 54–59.