Can a collective of artists in Africa repair a colonial legacy?

As is the case with many social practice projects, she continued, judging Martens’ work in Lusanga in aesthetic terms may seem impossible: there is real money circulating and livelihoods people are at stake. “What do you get by saying you’re an artist? ” she asked. “Funding, first, but also freedom.” An academic would need approval from an ethics committee, an aid worker demonstrable proof that his or her efforts have been successful. “It takes away some of the pressure to get something done,” Bishop said. “Being an artist, you might say, bails you out.”

Martens was completing a series of six short videos documenting Kasiama and Tamasala’s attempt to obtain the loan of a small wooden sculpture, made in the Congo, of Maximilien Balot, a Belgian colonial officer. His assassination in 1931, not far from Lusanga, sparked a revolt by the Pende people, hundreds of whom were later shot dead. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the sculpture, had refused to loan it to the White Cube for the foreseeable future, providing low-resolution images instead. With the help of a few web developers in Berlin, CATPC decided to create a non-fungible token. In February, members waited outside the White Cube at dusk as ghostly images of the sculpture, taken from a photograph on the Museum of Fine Arts website, were minted on the blockchain. The NFT was the collective’s major attempt to reclaim sculpture under the doctrine of fair use and, in Kasiama’s words, to “reclaim its powers”, which were originally intended to protect the earth and its inhabitants. Shortly after, the museum responded, calling the NFT “unacceptable” and “unprofessional”. The museum is no longer considering loans.

In June, Tamasala and Kasiama attended Art Basel, where some three hundred additional NFTs related to the Balot sculpture were minted. Tamasala told a reporter that while the museum’s loan denial was “a form of violence,” the NFTs were not meant to be an act of retaliation. “We come from a country that has a perpetual war,” he said. “We don’t want war. We don’t want to oppose the museum. We are not here to have a dispute with them. The only thing we want is to rekindle a relationship with sculpture. When I spoke to Tamasala and Kasiama two weeks later, they were in the Netherlands with Martens, preparing to return to Lusanga, where they hoped to purchase more land with funds raised from NFT.

A short article on 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 her. He and I met near the shore. A packet of Tanzanian cigarettes lay on a table and Martens struggled to light one with a damp match. The yoke of his shirt, threadbare the day before, was now torn. (A performance artist even when off duty, Martens wears his hair long and tends to wear the same button-up shirts and leather shoes walking around Lusanga as when visiting the galleries of Berlin art. But what in the film looks like an ironic embodiment of an antiquated trope – the European gentleman in Africa – in person is more like self-flagellation. Over the week, Martens’ costume s quickly deteriorated: frayed collars, holes appeared.)

Martens seemed both distressed and delighted by the framing of the article, which inflated a terse email exchange into what looked like an international court case. He was struck by the sensationalism of the title—“Dispute over loan of Congolese statue escalates into legal battle over NFTs— and unhappy with an accompanying photo of himself, which was nearly a decade old.

“I don’t associate myself with the guy in the picture,” Martens told me. It was taken in 2014, during an opening in Cardiff. There had been a cocktail with champagne, he remembers. He frowned for a moment, unsure how to proceed. He said that since the photo was taken he had changed. Although he first visited the DRC almost twenty years ago, it was only now that he was beginning to allow himself to really feel the grief – “Yes, ‘grief’ is the word” – that he had felt on his first trip. “The guy I see in the photo is a little jaded,” he said. “He is performing, he is quite armored.”

He lit another cigarette and continued, “I have encountered what you might consider, if you are ignorant, what I considered, because I has been ignorant, up to a certain point — “traditional rural villages”. “Martens was talking about thatched huts, cassava fields, a lack of consumer goods. “You might take it as natural,” he said. “You might think, that’s just how people live here.” Impersonating him, naively, he continued: “It’s sad, of course, but children smile when they see you. They run towards you – ‘Hey, world!’– they want a picture with you. So maybe that’s how it is, do you think. Maybe they are happier than you. Maybe there’s so much to do learn of these people, because they are in contact with nature, with their ancestors, the earth, with the gods on high. Maybe you think they are outside of capitalism. Maybe they have more empathy, more love, maybe they’re actually closer to the state we should all be in.

Then Martens came to a plantation. “The atmosphere is completely different,” he said. “People are desperate.” He described fathers begging him to come to their children’s funerals, women approaching him and finding themselves too upset to speak. “They don’t even know how to express their emotions,” he said. “It’s here.” Martens stuck his throat out and gagged in what started out as an imitation of desperation but quickly became reality. “So I am the man, in their eyes,” he continued. “I am the color of the skin, I am the passport, I am the UN. It’s imaginary, I know, but it’s still the same thing – I’m the boss of the plantation for them, in a way. Because otherwise why would I be here? Why would I be here if I wasn’t included in their lives? Why would I be here if I wasn’t in cahoots? And me a m in wick. Martens was crying at the time. “This device takes away people’s lives so easily,” he said. “It’s diabolical, the way it consumes people’s lives.”

We had been talking for a few hours when an intermittent banging started. Martens excused himself and glanced over the balcony cluttered with drying mosquito nets. Below us, a man was repairing a canoe. Martens asked the man if he would take a short break from work. It was the kind of call I would make to a stranger back home, politely but without concern. Here, however, the gulf of circumstances between me and the man who was knocking made such a request impossible, and I was impressed by Martens’ willingness to impose, which seemed to demonstrate more good faith and true camaraderie than any effusive kindness could ever do it.

When he sat down again, he began to talk about the anger he had felt on returning from Africa to Europe for the first time. His family was on holiday in France, and he joined them via Brussels, whose gleaming, perfumed airport now seemed threatening to him. He had malaria, and was disturbed by the orderliness and abundance of the French hospital, and by the perfect condition of the roads he took to get there. A sort of existential crisis has set in. What was all this infrastructure worth, he thought, if not everyone had access to it? Just as no one deserved to have unsafe drinking water or drug-resistant tuberculosis, he didn’t deserve the circumstances of his own life. He was neither better nor nicer than anyone else; he didn’t work harder. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” Martens said. “Actually, you’re not worth it,” he repeated. His voice took. “Your luck isn’t even your own, because you didn’t even roll the dice yourself. This is because generations after generations have arranged the dice.

Hellio appeared at the top of the stairs. “We have an in-depth interview about my emotions,” Martens told him. His affect was flat. Hellio expressed interest in observing the conversation, but Martens declined. “Go away,” he said. “I feel too shy.” Hellio hesitated. “She’s a journalist,” Martens said, pointing at me and saying the word as an insult. “She knows how to show empathy.” Reporting, he meant, was performative and necessarily predatory; it was only because ours was “an equal power relationship,” as he put it, that I could extract emotions from him and leave without guilt. “But do that with someone on the plantation,” Martens said with a smile, “and it’s completely screwed. You’ll feel completely screwed.

A few days later, in the shade of an acacia tree, about 30 people were seated in a neat arrangement of plastic chairs. It was morning. No one was talking, but it wasn’t silent. Roosters crowed, goats bleated, mosquitoes buzzed, a kingfisher sped like a thrown gem. Although the rainy season had been underway for months, the temperature was rising. People were getting impatient. The White Cube towered above our heads.

Then a murmur started, which turned into threats. Plantation workers dressed as police marched forward brandishing sticks as if they were weapons. A theatrical staging, taking the form of a mock trial of the White Cube, began. Tamasala had written the screenplay with the collective. Kasiama approached the bench and the judge asked him to state his name for the record. Speaking in Lingala, he explained that he would represent himself for the time being, as his lawyer had been delayed by the area’s abandoned roads and bridges.

“Your Honor,” Kasiama said, “I have come to this court to file a complaint against the White Cube.” He gestured at the blinding concrete cliff behind him. “This White Cube owes us, the inhabitants and workers of the plantations, whom I represent here, an enormous debt.” He looked across the surrounding land, which was planted with fruit trees. “This debt”, he continued, “often ignored by the art-loving public, camouflages the ugliness and cruelty behind these cleanly washed walls.” Kasiama’s speech was impassioned. He spoke of colonialist regimes, slavery, forced labor and the apparent impossibility of reconciliation. “Your Honor,” he said, “we are confident that at the end of the process, justice will be served and our rights restored.”

On the outskirts of the procedure, Martens cleared his throat and began to pace. The production had taken shape in the previous months, with only his faint awareness. The White Cube, as he could see, played the role of museums in Europe and America, where violence and dispossession had so long been whitewashed. It was a performance of restorative justice, and it was all videotaped. The collective hoped to turn the play into a film. It was hot and Martens seemed impatient. He thought the cameraman wasn’t moving enough, his shots were too hesitant – he wasn’t managing to capture so much. Martens stood nearby, whispering instructions, occasionally dodging the camera, trying to stay out of frame. ♦

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