SculptureCenter holds latest exhibition of work by Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise until 27 March 2017.
CAPTC is a union of Congolese plantation workers who harvest primary raw materials for international export companies. With the same materials, the workers also create sculptures in collaboration with their sister organisation, the Institute for Human Activities.
Under a classical Marxist approach, the distinction between art and alienated forms of wage-earning labour does not uphold: artists, rather than romantic agents of their own lives, are subject to the same processes of production, commodification and property as all other workers. Walter Benjamin, drawing on these analyses, posited that in the new age of modernism buoyed by the technology of mechanical reproduction, art would lose its aura – its distinct aesthetic quality – as it was reproduced again and again by machines. This central concern, of whether art and labour are indeed strange bedfellows, is at the heart SculptureCenter’s latest exhibition of work in its Long Island City space by the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League or CATPC).
Cercle d’Art, or CATPC is a union of Congolese plantation workers who harvest primary raw materials for international export companies that produce chocolate and palm oil, for instance. Using these same raw materials, however, the workers also create sculptures in collaboration with their sister organisation, the Institute for Human Activities (IHA). Founded in 2014 by the Dutch artist Renzo Martens, the IHA began its activities – exhibitions, presentations, conferences, lectures – in the Congo in 2012 to address economic inequality in both theoretical and material terms. Plantation workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are paid a minimum wage that is barely sustainable to sustain their families, but the sales of their artistic products often generate multiple times what they are able to make in a year by working on the plantation alone.
With these profits, the workers, alongside Martens and the IHA have set up the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI) that will open later this year. LIRCAEI’s offices are designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and in a fitting historical gesture, located on the site of a former Lever Brothers plantation. The Lever Brothers were a British soap making company (who would later join forces with a Dutch company to form Unilever) who received a concession of land in West Africa in 1911. The city of Lusanga was then known as Leverville, and LIRCAEI’s presence in the area rests on a palimpsest of colonial history and violence. In building the LIRCAEI headquarters, CATPC and Martens are effectively reclaiming this colonial legacy and challenging how this history seeps into contemporary politics and economics.
Though the economic motivation and historical legacies of the CATPC project span a series of entangled, complex networks, producing the sculptures that are on display at SculptureCenter is only slightly less so. First, the sculptures are cast in clay by artists and plantation works Djonga Bismar and Jérémie Mabiala. Then, they are rendered in a digital animation programme and sent to Amsterdam, where a 3-D printer gives them shape and then casts them again in Belgian chocolate using materials sourced from the original plantation itself.
The sculptures on display at SculptureCenter are not coated in the finished chocolate, but in cacao; other sculptures that CATPC sells for profit, however, do utilise the Belgian chocolate product. The entire process – from the extraction of primary source materials, to the trade routes to the Dutch capital, to its eventual exhibition in the United States – mirrors the flows of global capital and trade that defined the period of European colonialism in West Africa. In recreating this system of exchange, ethical questions arise: is there exploitation embedded in the process? Can art be truly transformative at an economic level?
Judging by the precision of the works and the scrutiny with which the entire production process is handled, the answer might be yes. Martens’ partnership with René Ngongo, the current president, began during his initial trip to the Congo for his 2008 film project Enjoy Poverty, in which Martens encouraged Congolese photographers, artists and art practitioners to capitalise on poverty images as an income-generating activity. Through this project, he met and interviewed Ngongo, who would go on to develop CATPC alongside workers from the plantation, including Mathieu Kilapi Kasiama, Cedrick Tamasala, Mbuku Kimpala, Mananga Kibuila, Thomas Leba. The organisation expanded to include artists from Kinshasa, Michel Ekeba, Eléonore Hellio and Mega Mingiedi, and is ever-expanding, encouraging new members to join in the project and the development of LIRCAEI.
At the SculptureCenter exhibition, which consists of sculptures rendered in cacao, drawings, a video installation and a reading room, the process of the sculptures and the identity of their artists is highlighted rather than obscured. Curated by Ruba Katrib, the exhibition situates the CATPC, SculptureCenter and the international art world within the context of global financial networks. The exhibition catalogue notes:
To understand our current state, it is essential to recognize this glaring lack of acknowledgement of the role of violence and exploitation both past in present in building the wealth and comfort of Western nations. Under these conditions, can culture be repurposed to redress these wrongs? And how do we avoid the ignorance or complacency in providing content that disregards or absolves the entities that commit injustices?
There are no easy answers to the queries raised by Katrib and the team at SculptureCenter, because as the goals and day-to-day workings of the IHA and CATPC prove, these global injustices are systemic and embedded. Working to undo them requires a degree of both care and knowledge, and moreover, commitment. But as abstract and intellectualised as the themes are, the clay sculptures and pencil drawings made by the plantation workers of CATPC induce a more instinctive response. One does not even need to inspect the sculptures or drawings with immense scrutiny to see the artists’ hand in the works, the fingerprints and impressions that have moulded the clay or drawn the works on paper.
If Marxian analysis emphasises the degree to which workers are alienated from the products of their labour, then the exhibition at SculptureCenter, at one level, addresses the possibility of filling in this gap and attending to the intricacies of human involvement in artistic production. It’s not a perfect model, but gets as close as it can to rectifying the entangled networks of labour that have so defined contemporary economics and politics.
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