Almost ten years after the release of the controversial film Episode III – Enjoy Poverty,  Dutch artist Renzo Martens returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo with his Institute for Human Activities (IHA). The new project is an endeavour that maintains that art engagement can redress inequalities. Inaugurated in April 2017, The Repatriation of the White Cube is an exhibition project with political, economic, and social ambitions. It questions the mechanisms of power and resources in a former palm oil plantation in a town located 650km from Kinshasa, called Lusanga, and the rural area that encompasses it, which together are home to some 50,000 people. The town was formerly known as Leverville, after the British Lever Brothers (later Unilever), who were allowed to take control of the plantations in 1911. After decades of providing the capital and labour which colonialists exploited, it is time for the people of Lusanga to reverse the process and use their territory to generate a new economic system with more socially inclusive and ecological purposes and practises. In other words, the plantation workers have helped finance the Western art world, yet art may be the very thing to help invest capital and visibility back in Lusanga.
Since 2014, the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) has collaborated with the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC; or in English, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League) to form a micro-economy that can subsist by means of producing and selling art. In early 2017, the workers’ cooperative CATPC 3D-modelled and cast sculptures in chocolate, using the materials taken from the cacao plantations. The works were exhibited and sold at the SculptureCentre and Armory Show in New York, and in Berlin’s KOW gallery, which all generated and returned profits to the Lusanga artists. Not long after, the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI) was created as a joint initiative between the IHA and CATPC. Together they commissioned the Dutch architectural studio OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture co-founded by Rem Koolhaas) to model and construct their White Cube: a structure made of white bamboo that represents the centrepiece of LIRCAEI’s activities. The idea of the white cube as the modernist symbol of white dominance and representation of Western aesthetics acts as a catalyst for LIRCAEI not only to intervene in the plantation system with a post-colonial approach, but also to critically engage with artistic experimentation and cultural diversity.
Curated by CATCP, the inaugural exhibition of LIRCAEI featured works by African artists such as Irene Kanga and Mathieu Kasiama alongside international artists such as Kader Attia, Luc Tuymans, Carsten Höller, and Marlene Dumas. The event also represented the beginning of the “Post-Plantation” model; a five-year programme designed to slowly implement a creative workforce while strengthening the current economic model by allowing local communities to benefit from their lands.
Camille Regli: You are back in Congo with The Repatriation of the White Cube, which aims to bring back social, economic, and cultural capital to whence it originates. From the early 20th century onward, multinational organisations spent decades in the area of Lusanga exploiting the plantation territory for their own purposes. The wealth generated by these plantations significantly contributed to financing art, for instance, the Unilever series at Tate Modern. Through this project, you are trying to change the mindset of Lusanga's people by artistically and economically empowering them. Can you tell me more about how you started working with them, and how you have experienced the project throughout?
Renzo Martens: After having made Episode III – Enjoy Poverty, I felt frustrated that the economic, intellectual and artistic spin-off of that film was in global cities only, and that the film had next to no impact on the lives of the people whose circumstances it documented. In order to still think that art could be meaningful, I felt the need to strategically determine the localities where my art dealing with economic inequality would have an effect. In 2012, I organised IHA’s first activity—a seminar on these matters on a former Unilever plantation in Congo. The participants included Richard Florida, Eyal Weizman, TJ Demos, Marcus Steinweg, Nina Möntmann, Elke Van Campenhout, and more. In the end, IHA was expelled from that site by the company that bought that plantation from Unilever, called Feronia. They said we were inciting civil violence. So René Ngongo—one of the participants of the Opening Seminar—co-founded CATPC in Lusanga, to make sure that they would be major drivers of the economic return that critical art could have.
CR: In the film Episode III – Enjoy Poverty, you state that poverty is Africa’s best export image to the world from which Western societies benefit, but which does not truly improve Africa's conditions. You’ve also mentioned in an interview that, “These people can’t live off plantation labour. But I think they can live off critical engagement with plantation labour.” (The Guardian, January 2015) From an artistic point of view, what impact or result have you experienced so far from the White Cube’s programme?
RM: The White Cube is always a problem—its perceived neutrality masks the power structures and gross inequalities that allow art, as we know it, to exist. Even if study programmes in many global cities try to understand and critically engage with this problem, it brings hardly any solutions to the other half. It is time for the people who (in economic and ideological terms) have constructed our White Cubes—without ever having been asked whether they wanted one or what they would do with it—to take control over one and decide what to do with it. This is an educational moment for everyone involved. To repatriate the White Cube to Lusanga is an act that unravels white privilege and the blind spots it produces.
CR: Just to go deeper in this notion of the White Cube, do you refer it to the people who have ideologically constructed the White Cube, or to the White Cube as an idea of economic superiority?
RM: Certainly economic, but some writers argue that the construction of pristine venues for high art were necessary for the shareholders in order to separate themselves from the violence of the plantation system that they installed. In that way, the White Cube is very much linked to the plantation—in ideological terms, too.
CR: How much control do you have over the project once it settled in? Could you be “removed” from the project by other actors?
RM: Certainly. The land that CATPC bought through the presence and the capital generated by the White Cube is owned and managed by CATPC.
CR: To what extent is the White Cube programme engaging with its local community? Does it impact its neighbouring areas? Dare I say that it feels like an act of gentrification itself to bring a White Cube to a developing country—doesn’t it feel like supremacy? What is at stake, and what critique have you had to face?
RM: As pointed out before, The Repatriation of the White Cube is the exact opposite of white supremacy, which is dominant in the white cubes that have not been repatriated. We called this programme a Reverse Gentrification Programme and—more importantly—we have been investigating the reverse of gentrification from 2012 onwards. This programme is now concluded, and we started this new programme for the Post-Plantation in 2017.
CR: So, now that you have launched LIRCAEI’s five-year programme, what are the plans for the White Cube in the years to come?
RM: Its programme is currently in discussion and is being defined by CATPC and IHA. But one thing is for sure: it is the cornerstone for the Post-Plantation: it attracts the capital, visibility and legitimisation for CATPC to buy back the land and start egalitarian, ecological, and creative gardens that offer an alternative to monoculture.
CR: So, the resources acquired through the White Cube are funnelled into local agriculture?
RM: Yes, indeed. CATPC just bought 65 hectares of land thanks to the proceeds of art. There is much more to come. The White Cube itself is almost finished (there was no roof on it when we opened it in 2017), and the White Cube programme has art and agricultural workshops.
CR: I see that there are also plans for artist residencies and other exhibitions at the White Cube. Is the aim of de-localising art-making to get away from the usual creative clusters and bring new definitions of what culture/art is, i.e. to decolonise the narratives?
RM: Certainly, if other people make art and benefit from it, art and its narratives will change.
CR: Given a magic wand, what would you change in the world?
RM: We already have the magic wand. It is art and its apparatus. If we use these, the possibilities are unlimited.
Renzo Martens (born 1973 in Terneuzen, the Netherlands) is a Dutch artist, currently living and working in Amsterdam and Kinshasa. Martens is best known for his work Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008), a documentary that suggests that the Congo market their poverty as a natural resource. In 2010 Renzo Martens initiates the Institute for Human Activities (IHA), a research project developed with the KASK School of Arts in Ghent, which aims at proving that artistic critique can redress economic inequalities – not symbolically, but in real, material terms. Since 2017, Martens and the IHA started a long-term gentrification programme on a palm oil plantation in the rainforests of Congo to create a new ecological and sustainable economic model based on art.
Camille Regli lives between London and Zurich and attended the MAS in Curating at ZHdK from 2017 to 2019. She holds a master in cultural studies at King’s College London and works as Arts PR and communications consultant specialising in contemporary art. Focusing her research on the subversive notions of performance art, she has curated group shows at the OnCurating Project Space (OCPS) in Zurich, as well as a performance in collaboration with the Zürich moves festival.
 Episode III – Enjoy Poverty is a 90-minute film by Renzo Martens in Congo, where he states that, “Images of poverty are the Congo’s most lucrative export, generating more revenue than traditional exports like gold, diamonds, or cocoa. Martens started an emancipation programme in which he encouraged local communities to monetize their poverty.” Accessed Mar. 1, 2018, http://www.enjoypoverty.com/.
 The Institute for Human Activities (IHA) is a research project initiated by Renzo Martens with the KASK – School of Arts in Ghent to redress economic inequality with an artistic critique/approach.
 In early 2017, the workers’ cooperative CATPC 3D-modelled and chocolate-cast sculptures from the cacao plantations in Congo. The works were exhibited and sold at the SculptureCentre and Armory Show in New York and in Berlin’s KOW gallery, which all generated returned profits to the Lusanga artists. (This is the same exact text already in the body of this same paragraph. – Delete this, or the text in the body?)
 The Opening Seminar was a two-day talk and screening programme to inaugurate the Gentrification Program initiated by IHA in Congo to critically investigate reasons for art to exist where it can have a real social impact instead of only benefiting wealthy industries and cities.
 The first artist in residency of Lusanga’s White Cube programme is the Belgian, Congo-born artist Baloji, who, in collaboration with CATPC, premiered his music video Peau de Chagrin – Bleu de Nuit at the 21st Biennale of Sydney in 2018.