Director: Renzo Martens | 77 minutes | documentary
In Renzo Martens’ documentary “Episode III – Enjoy Poverty” (2008), the filmmaker tried in a somewhat cynical way to make poor Congolese earn money in the same way that Western photographers did: by photographing the suffering in their country. That failed (and resulted in the sarcastic title), but the documentary was a success. That triumph organically led to the sequel “White Cube” (2020). This film is much less controversial than its predecessor, but it still makes the viewer think.
A lesson in history then: William Lever of the British soap manufacturer Lever Brothers started a palm oil plantation in the Belgian Congo in 1911. In addition to a job on the plantation, Congolese were also given a house, which prompted the workers to register en masse. Palm oil is extracted to this day; for $ 1 a day – which is not enough to buy food – and in shabby houses the plantation workers are no better off than they were then. Martens rightly notes an enormous contradiction here: when his film “Enjoy Poverty” was shown at London’s Tate Modern, and he was invited, he saw Unilever logos everywhere on the walls. Unilever is pumping sponsor money into Western museums, money that they can spare by, among other things, underpaying the plantation workers. Why then do the Congolese not see any of this?
Martens himself has not gotten any worse either, he himself admits in “White Cube”. “I could make a good living on the money that ‘Enjoy Poverty’ raised, I was even able to buy a car, I am now married…” This honesty is a credit to the filmmaker, but at the same time it feels somewhat uncomfortable. That is even taken a step further when it turns out that Martens’ first attempt to bring the inhabitants into contact with art, in Botega, comes to nothing, because he is no longer welcome on the plantation because of alleged threats by “his” people. Martens seeks fatherly support from an older man and then bursts into tears. Why didn’t that fragment die from the more than 700 hours of material he collected in about eight years? Is it a role he is playing or is the emotion real? The fate of the Congolese must be close to Martens’ heart. In 2014 his project seems to be going well after all. In Lusanga, where the soil is completely exhausted, the plantation workers make sculptures from red river clay; images that are close to their own experience (witness the image of a rape). Martens comes up with the idea of sending these images digitally to Western museums, where they were then imitated in chocolate and can be sold. To make his idea clear, he hands out Cote d’Or – it is the first time that these people have tasted chocolate. The CATPC (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise) is a fact and the images are actually on display in a museum in New York. With the proceeds and the advertising that this generates, Martens creates the opportunity to build a museum in Lusanga. It works: the inhabitants of Lusanga can now use their land for planting crops.
With ‘White Cube’, Martens does not attempt to provide a bite-sized solution to the skewed relationships within the art world, but the fact that he demonstrates in the first place that the (perhaps so-called) involved artists actually profit just as well from the abuses in the world is already very what. And the success he has achieved in Lusanga can only be inspiring.