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by Shwetal Patel

Beyond the White Cube: An Interview with Renzo Martens

In this interview, Shwetal Patel asks Renzo Martens whether decolonising the museum is enough, and how analysing the economics of non-profit art platforms can help us further understand the effects of globalisation upon the production, dissemination, and discourse around contemporary art.
November 2022

Renzo Martens first began exploring politicised dichotomies in his early work Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008) [1], a documentary that suggests that the most lucrative export of Congo today is poverty. When Martens presented the film at Tate Modern, the number of Unilever logos around the gallery spaces struck him. Digging deeper into what and who has funded the western art world, he often questions whether just decolonising the museum is enough. Martens has taken ideas and theory to a point of realisation beyond discourse - and arguably beyond the current art world.

Working closely with CATPC [2] and René Ngongo, this collaboration is a unique and innovative program of international acclaim that uses art to attract visibility, legitimacy, and capital to the plantation communities. The project aims to allow plantation workers to ‘decolonise’ themselves, creating an inclusive, ecological, and worker-owned Post-Plantation - inspired and (partly) financed by contemporary art. Described by Holland Cotter in the New York Times as ‘politically problematic’ [3], this reverse-gentrification project aims to restitute the capital, inspiration and people that were forcefully taken from plantations to fund the western (art)world for centuries. Documenting this process, Martens’ more recent film White Cube [4] premiered in 2020 in Lusanga, Congo, challenging the concept of the white cube, and all the privileges that it stands for, using it as a symbol and catalyst for plantation workers to buy back their land.

Since this interview was conducted, it was announced that Renzo Martens together with collective CATPC and curator Hicham Khalidi will provide the Dutch entry to the 2024 edition of the Venice Biennale.


Shwetal Patel: I want to start by asking you about your project, which I found very inspiring as someone who is practising both within Western Europe, and over the last twelve years in South Asia. How do you deal with working within two different systems, in terms of the politics and funding?

Renzo Martens: It is difficult to talk about funding – on the one hand, artists, in good or bad ways, disclose, or try to disclose, the mechanics of capital. And of course, at the same time capital is tied to the state, to war, to the climate crisis, to slavery, to racial capitalism and more. So one can treat the problems with capital as content; and make art about the large inequalities in this world. Yet on the other hand, the uneven distribution of capital is constitutive to the production of those artworks. Therefore, I've been trying for decades, and within the limitations I have, to disclose the terms and conditions of art production and overcome them.

The word ‘hierarchy’ is interesting to me. Etymologically, it points to the existence of  sacred knowledge and a distinction between those who have access to this knowledge and those who do not. It seems that many of the most relevant exhibitions (whether they take place in the global South or Western Europe) deal on a content level with capitalism, the climate crises and so on. The exhibitions are often funded by Western European or North American entities, for example by government departments, arts councils, embassies, private foundations, museums etc. These exhibitions also often make claims about decolonisation, which is very welcome and long overdue. But sometimes I wonder who has access to those discourses? Whether one can go to those biennials and exhibitions - and be part of the discussions - which is ultimately policed by money. Most people that have grown up, or still live and work on the plantations that have historically funded Western art museums, can never go to those exhibition sites, simply because they would need a passport or a visa, or at least a ticket, and free time, or a certain set of clothes perhaps. If you make a hundred dollars a month, you won't be able to obtain a visa and chances are you won't have access to these discourses around decolonisation. To put it simply: impoverished people on plantations do not readily have access to the art exhibitions that debate decolonisation. And so the question is: where is that sacred knowledge on decolonisation produced and who is allowed to access it?

SP: When we first met at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, you and I both had an affinity around the question of whom we are having these long overdue discussions around decolonisation and inequality for. Is this for our guilt and satisfaction or do these things have a wider socio-economic effect? Questioning these discussions around decolonisation may be quite unfashionable, but arguably they are not helping the people that we are talking about; or understand the terms of the discussion. What struck me when I was reading through your literature was that the presentation reads like an NGO, in terms of the statistics and concise arguments for why this is important. It clearly illustrates the divide between those that are being discussed and theorised and those that are doing the discussing and theorising. It makes complete sense on many levels and is very slick and convincing in presentation.
I wanted to ask you about the community in Congo. Specifically how you raised funds to buy back their land, to create the economic and creative freedom to be respected, not simply as farmers, but elevating them to some of the highest echelons of Western civilisation. It seems you are using money from the global north, alongside the apparatus of the art market to raise funds for these people, and I thought that this was quite a profound approach. What are the problematics of this strategy?

RM: I do think that these debates and discussions are long overdue, on inclusivity, the financing structure of the museum, and decolonisation, and I think they're not going nearly far enough. It was interesting that we met at the Stedelijk Museum, as over the last few years there has been a tremendous run of exhibitions that try to rebalance whose points of view are being exhibited in that museum. For the first time, there's serious attention to people who are not white males from Western Europe but also artists from the global south, and of course, women. Finally people of colour are being hired in senior management positions and they are doing tremendous work. I think, as an example, the show recently at Stedelijk, Kirchner and Nolde [5], was an interesting one, because it exhibited how two key artists from a century ago were deeply indebted to people in the global South. In particular one plantation in Papua New Guinea stood out where one of them went to study and create art.

I think that despite this exhibition, the Stedelijk is still too limited and there seems to be a lack of structural attempt to understand the material conditions of the museum. The museum has been built, brick by brick, with profits from plantations in the Dutch colonies, which would include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Surinam and different regions in Africa that were connected economically to Amsterdam. The museum was not just paid with profits extracted from tobacco, cocoa, and coffee plantations, but also with profits from the speculation on future profits on these plantations. And so it is no coincidence that the Netherlands is still the biggest cocoa importer in the world. Just fifteen kilometres from the Stedelijk you can find millions upon millions of kilogrammes of cocoa, extracted from plantations. If we realise fully that indeed this great museum is in effect built with the profits extracted from plantations, and built with speculation on the never-ending and ongoing extraction of  profits extracted from plantations, then it's not enough to now rebrand this museum as a site for inclusivity and diversity, simply by putting up thematic shows. It makes no sense to allow the Stedelijk Museum, which has benefited so much from colonialism, to now position itself as a centre of decolonisation, if the people still living and working on plantations that financed the Stedelijk are not yet in a position to also decolonise.

When you say that people on plantations ‘may not even understand the terms of the discussion’, I must disagree. It is not like people in the Global South or on plantations in Papua New Guinea wouldn’t know all too well that they have already contributed enormously to the West.

Stills from White Cube, Renzo Martens. Copyright Human Activities, 2020.

SP: Sorry, Renzo…. I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to say: that we in the West may not fully understand the terms of the debate.

RM: Thank you for clarifying that. Building on my misunderstanding, I would however agree that it may make little sense for some people to join in on discussions on how to decolonise the museum, if the benefits of those discussions remain restricted to, once again, the museum. Every day people are striking on plantations to get their land back, sometimes they are getting bullets in the head, it's not like they don't understand – I think they understand all too well.

The problem is the other way around. Do people who visit the museum understand their position vis-a-vis the struggles of the people on the plantations? The very same companies that built and financed these museums a hundred years ago still impose their policies today. Everything, the earth, people, plants, are completely instrumentalised for profit maximisation and the primary model that is imposed is monoculture. Again, the debates in museums around diversity risks remaining sterile, a toy for privileged people, if people on plantations cannot also part in these debates, influence them and benefit from them.

Of course, this is complicated, and I understand it can be taken as a contradiction in some ways to build a white cube museum on a plantation in Congo. But for me, it's about redistribution and repatriation: I think the white cube should be conducive to communities eventually getting their land back. My main goal is that the white cube can indeed become a site of reckoning and of taking responsibility exactly for its position, for its positionality. It can become an emblem of the apparatus that is now being turned against itself. It needs to refer to any other white cube, such as the Stedelijk Museum, or any other museum that has benefited from colonialism. I recognise that white cubes are first and foremost, all over the world, apparatuses of exclusion. Redistributing and positioning one of those white cubes at the disposition of the communities who have historically financed it, is I believe, a step forward.

SP: But why the choice of a white cube? Why not an art school, medical centre, or a children's playground? Was it built for OMA [6] to say that they were part of a cutting-edge project in the Congolese forest? Was it built with Dutch public money because it projected how the Dutch government was working constructively in zones of conflict?

RM: I think that in the film that we made about the project titled White Cube, it’s quite clear that I started what I called at the time, a reverse-gentrification programme. Gradually it changed, and we built a white cube, situated in a very particular place, in Lusanga (formerly Leverville). Lusanga, and the other Congolese Unilever plantations, have directly funded the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Leverhulme Trust - which gives grants to people studying the Humanities in the UK, and later the Unilever series at Tate Modern. So, I think the connection between this plantation and several white cubes, or white cube type of institutions, is very direct and very clear. If plantations in Congo would have first and foremost funded playgrounds in the UK, then maybe an option would have been to build a playground, or if funds were used to build hospitals, then maybe a hospital should have been built. But in this case, it has directly funded museums. I think it is no secret that white cube museums, at large, are part of city branding, of attracting capital and visibility, next to functioning as symbolic and discursive spaces. I believe one of the many great things that ruangrupa (curators of documenta 15) did was to position another type of making art, and of thinking about art, that could be considered by some as ‘off the radar’, and bringing them to the ‘centre’. I think that was a brilliant move and it is a move that has also been supported widely by funders. I think similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale, to build a white cube on this plantation is a way to acknowledge the positionality of museums vis-a-vis plantations and create the potential for new relations.

I think it's promising that museums decolonise; I think it's important for museums to ask for forgiveness and become redistributive mechanisms. They must acknowledge the attempts of communities on the plantations that have funded those museums to also decolonise. The white cube tries to be a lever or a switchboard to engender that change, because white cubes produce capital, legitimacy, and visibility; they do it in Documenta in Kassel, and they seemingly can also do it in Lusanga.

SP: From an administrative point of view, to maintain a museum, you need staff and visiting audiences that cares about what you're doing, or at least feels a part of it in some way. In this case, we're dealing with some of the most impoverished people anywhere on the planet, not to say that they don't deserve a white cube, but how much relevance does it have to their lives and for whom is it being done? Or is it more relevant to your life? In the sense of the cost of it, and if the funding was pulled away tomorrow, how would it maintain itself?

RM: I think these questions go for any museum or exhibition, what happens if the Stedelijk loses its funding tomorrow - will it still exist? You know that's a big question mark. I think in this case, it will still exist because what this museum produces is not just a museum programme, like a series of exhibitions, discourses, or publications, but what it produces is the means of production that come back within the hands of the community.

SP: Without support would the jungle simply grow over the museum? Do you think the audience or the Dutch government see as much value in it as you see?

RM: I think part of the answer is very similar to the answer that any institution would have to give, what happens with the Stedelijk Museum or Documenta if funding stops tomorrow? Will they still have a programme?

SP: That’s a very good point. I just wonder in this case that if the funding runs out one day, does it become a burden to the community?

RM: Museums need funding to run their programmes and so that's no different in Lusanga. But I think the most important thing that this particular white cube produces, or what I hope it produces, is not merely a museum programme, but it is the one white cube that intends to ask for forgiveness and bring back the land in the hands of the community.

In that way, the white cube is simply an apparatus that returns agency,land and capital to the people from whom it was taken away. So, I hope it goes on for a very, very long time and not just in this place, but in many other places. I think at some point there will need to be so much pressure on Unilever and other companies, that they will not only actively resituate the land that they confiscated but also pay for the repair for what they've destroyed, including rejuvenating the forest. So the white cube is just simply a catalyst for that to happen. At this point, even if it were to stop tomorrow as an exhibition space, hundreds of hectares of land have been brought back and restored into these ecological safe havens that the people now live in.

CATPC members (from left): Olele Mulela Mabamba, Irène Kanga, Huguette Kilembi, Jérémie Mabiala, Jean Kawata, Mbuku Kimpala, Ced’art Tamasala and Matthieu Kasiama.

SP: In the post-structural economic paradigm there were lots of NGOs buying land back for indigenous communities so that they could fund their own farms and escape subsistence living. I’m interested in how you are using art in very different ways; working with René Ngongo and presenting shows in New York that have received huge critical acclaim. You also support Congolese artists to sell their work through galleries. Would it simply have been enough to use those funds to help them buy back the land and create studio facilities and then help them to produce more art? Again, I question this insertion of a white cube in the middle of a jungle – who is the audience?

RM: I think that the white cube is not a white cube in the jungle, I'm afraid I've been misquoted at some point, because the white cube is not at all in the jungle, it is on a former Unilever plantation. And the logic is quite clear: these plantations have financed white cubes elsewhere, so the first act of restitution is to simply give back what has been involuntarily financed by the community. Certainly, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure have also been extracted from these plantations, but white cubes are among the most prominent spaces and they are the ones in which the discourse of ‘decolonisation’ is formulated, and of course, people on plantations can and should be part of that. Even this discussion that you and I are now having, it's in a magazine called On Curating. It's not a white cube literally, but a type of white cube, with its own conditions, history, and limitations, and it’s based in Zurich. Therefore, the way forward can’t simply be reorganising what is happening in white cubes in Zurich or making them more inclusive or more diverse. Acknowledging their positionality and repositioning them to the very spaces where the capital, inspiration and energies were taken away to build white cubes in places like Zurich and Amsterdam – It is simply an act of creating a level playing field.

When you ask why you didn’t instead create studio facilities or just buy back the land, as you say, things like this have been attempted since the eighties, including by René Ngongo. He ran the NGO OCEAN, one of the only organisations that through ten years of the most brutal war, was able to preserve primary forests for the people living in them. Therefore, it’s not a coincidence that he later founded Greenpeace in Congo. René Ngongo has been involved in the deepest way possible.

Now, do people want and need it? I suggest that you get in touch with CATPC because I'm not the best person to speak on behalf of CATPC or anybody else. But from my perspective, it seems that people are using the white cube as leverage to get back the land and to make the white cube pay. Beautiful sculptures have been made, and are being made, and are being exhibited in Lusanga, elsewhere in Congo, on the African continent and internationally. Thousands of people have come and seen CATPC’s work, sometimes in the white cube but more often outside of the white cube. The white cube is just a signal that this is a place that stands in relation to the capital that was taken away and the forests that were destroyed. So what to do now? Some people in CATPC call it a monument or a coffin, for all the lives that were stolen, through plantation labour and also the transatlantic slave trade.

SP: I'm very grateful for your patience because these questions do not come from a place of cynicism or scepticism; they are coming from a space of curiosity and admiration. In terms of this concern that somehow these discourses don't go far enough, I have never come across somebody, certainly not an artist, who has taken ideas and theory to this point of realisation. Which leads to my final questions; How could we scale this in different contexts, and therefore, what are the lessons here for the rest of us who can't go to these lengths? And finally, what's next for you?

RM: Thank you for your compliments but I think that I have none of the answers. These are global problems and I'm limited in what I see and what I don't see. The one thing I did try to do was acknowledge intuition, it has been built on intuitions of members from CATPC and René Ngongo. Especially the first time we discussed the very idea of reverse-gentrification, to make sure that these debates and discourses were not only taking place in Zurich, Cape Town, Dakar, or even Kinshasa, or Lubumbashi, but also with the people that have been pushed down, far below the working class, on the plantations. So René insisted that the thing people needed and fought for was land. One of the reasons he left Greenpeace was because he felt Greenpeace at that point was working almost exclusively for a global arena with relatively little direct impact for people on the ground. He wanted to reconnect the discussions that are happening globally, on a political level about inclusivity, climate change and land rights, to the people who are living on the ground. In this case - on Unilever plantations - working for nine dollars a month. And we really bonded from the start in questioning these realities.

Self Portrait Without Clothes, Mbuku Kimpala / CATPC, SculptureCenter, still from White Cube, Renzo Martens. Copyright Human Activities, 2020.

But what can we do? We talked a lot about this in Lusanga. First and foremost museums should become sites for redistribution and restitution. I don't only mean restitution of objects, because the main thing that has been taken away is not those objects, but the societies in which those objects function. Just as seriously as we take the agenda of the decolonisation of museums, the communities on the plantations that funded these museums should also be in a position to decolonise themselves.

As a simple example, I think the Stedelijk Museum should (in addition to the recent exhibition of Kirchner and Nolde’s, displaying how these artists benefited from colonialism and appropriated motifs from plantations in Papua New Guinea) spend their entire acquisition budget on art from the very communities that financed the museum. I recognise the Stedelijk Museum self-identifies as an art museum, not a museum on social justice. That is not a problem. The people on the plantations that have funded the Stedelijk Museum, and have inspired Kirchner and Nolde, also make art. They not only co-authored Kirchner and Nolde’s work, but helped build the entire museum. Whether the curators of the Stedelijk Museum appreciate their art or not, is irrelevant. I think that whatever people on the plantation say is their art should be paid for.

So I don’t think that museums, like the Stedelijk, should reserve a part of their acquisition and exhibition budgets for people of colour. I think that they should reserve their entire budget for the communities that live and work on the plantations that have financed the museum. If not, there's a real risk that museums that benefited from colonialism are now going to be the first beneficiaries of decolonisation.

Renzo Martens (1973) studied political science and art. After making the films Episode I and Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Martens established Human Activities and its “reverse gentrification program” on a plantation in the DR Congo. Together with the plantation workers of the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), he employs artistic critique to build a new world – not symbolically, but in material terms. Together, they opened a White Cube that is meant to repatriate capital and visibility to communities of plantation workers. White Cube, Martens’ latest film, shows how Congolese plantation workers set a new precedent: they successfully co-opt the concept of the ‘white cube’ to liberate their land and turn it into forests. CATPC, Renzo Martens, and curator Hicham Khalidi will provide the Dutch entry for the Venice Biennale 2024.

Shwetal Ashvin Patel is a writer and researcher practising at the intersection of visual art, exhibition-making and development studies. He works internationally –primarily in Europe and South Asia – and is a founding member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India, responsible for international partnerships and programmes. He holds a practice-based PhD from Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, where his thesis was titled 'Biennale Practices: Making and Sustaining Visual Art Platforms'. He is a guest lecturer at Zürich University of the Arts, Royal College of Art, and Exeter University, besides being an editorial board member at OnCurating.org and a trustee at Milton Keynes Museum and Coventry Biennial. He lives between United Kingdom, Belgium and India.


[1] Episode III – Enjoy Poverty is a 90-minute film by Renzo Martens in Congo. He states, “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 encourages local communities to monetise their poverty.” Accessed Feb 3, 2023, https://www.humanactivities.org/en/product/episode-iii-enjoy-poverty/

[2] “The Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) was founded near Lusanga in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in August 2014, by a group of plantation workers from three plantations in the south, in collaboration with ecologist Rene Ngongo and the artists Michel Ekeba, Eléonore Hellio, and Mega Mingiedi. The organization is a grassroots platform for the development of new economic initiatives based on the production and sale of critical art. Through the launch of a creative economy, it aims to improve the economic position of its members and their communities.” Accessed Feb 3, 2023, https://www.humanactivities.org/en/catpc/

[3] Holland Cotter, “African art in a game of catch up”, New York Times, March 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/arts/design/review-african-art-in-a-game-of-catch-up.html

[4] “White Cube” accessed Feb 3, 2023, https://renzomartens.com/whitecube/

[5] “Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism.” Accessed Feb 3, 2023, https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/exhibitions/kirchner-en-nolde-expressionisme-kolonialisme-2

[6] OMA - Office for metropolitan architecture - designed the white cube on the plantation in DR Congo, opening with an exhibition by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama. Accessed Feb 3, 2023, https://www.oma.com/news/white-cube-lircaei-designed-by-oma-david-gianotten-featured-in-idfa-2020-documentary

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel

Editorial: Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art