Near the back corner of Pier 94 in the Focus section of the Armory Show, there are two near-identical sculptures of bespectacled bald men looking a bit perplexed. Another notable detail: they’re both made out of chocolate—and carry the rich smell to prove it. Titled The Art Collector, the pieces, presented jointly by Berlin’s KOW Gallery and Amsterdam’s Galerie Fons Welters, were created by two Congolese plantation workers—Djong Bismar and Jérémie Mabiala—who crafted the shapes of the figures with clay. From there, the sculptures were digitally rendered and sent to Amsterdam, where they were 3D-printed and later cast in their final chocolate form in a manner that mirrors the cacao production process. A major difference in this instance: the workers own the means of production and receive a far greater return on their product (7000 percent more per gram, to be precise.)
Bismar and Mabiala belong to the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League), a collective founded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014 by a social activist named René Ngongo and a group of 12 local plantation workers, all in partnership with the Institute for Human Activities, a research project created by the dutch artist Renzo Martens.
“He’s the money guy, trying to decide what to do with it,” Martens said of his take on The Art Collector, while on hand at the fair. The question of capital flow in the art market has been on Martens’ mind for some time. In 2008, he released his self-described “moody manifesto” on the matter in the form of Enjoy Poverty, a documentary film for which Martens traveled to Congo to depict the blatant economic inequality that exists there, while paradoxically highlighting the futile and inherently exploitative nature of such an artwork. Through the film, Martens met Ngongo, who suggested the pair work on a project to address the issue.
Their partnership began with a question: how can one critique economic inequality in a way that can actually override and change it? The pair agreed that this required challenging the underlying economic and social structures of the art world. They decided the best way to begin would be to consult the workers they sought to assist. During their first attempt, Martens and Ngongo were “chased away” by the Canadian company that owned a plantation they took as a focus. They had better luck on another one, where the pair began discussions with the workers who would later help them form CATPC.
In April, the pair will have completed the first “five-year phase” of their collaborative effort. In this regard, said Martens, they have “succeeded in a variety of ways.” For one, the workers they have been collaborating with have made it into the art world: in the Armory Show and also, more momentously, at New York’s SculptureCenter, which has staged a bigger exhibition that opened in January and runs through March 27. The plantation workers have also enjoyed a massive gain in income, with their sculptures generating tens of thousands of dollars to date—considerable when compared to the $200 a year they make otherwise. With the money, the workers are beginning to reinvest in buying back land and starting what they call “post-plantations.”
The first of these “post-plantations” is currently under construction to take the form of a white cube gallery space designed by Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and built on the site of a former Unilever palm-oil plantation in Lusanga, Congo. It will be called the Lusanga International Research Center for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI), and it is scheduled to open in two months. The space will be run and curated by the members of CATPC, providing a site for an increased intercontinental flow of culture.
“In this show,” said Martens, gesturing around the fair, “the plantation workers serve the art world.” But when the center in Lusanga opens, that relationship will be reversed. “There,” Martens continued, “the art world—and the white cube as one of its power tools—will serve the plantation.”
To that point, on Friday at 1 p.m. Martens will be giving a talk as part of the Armory Live program titled “Repatriating the White Cube.”