It was in 1911 that the British soap company Lever Brothers first signed an agreement to set up plantations in the Congo Free State. Well over a century later, having changed its name to Unilever, the multinational corporation is still profiteering from these plantations and capitalising on the abundance of cheap labour. But now, an artist-led initiative exhibiting at KOW later this month, is drawing attention to this exploitative economic system and directing capital back to the plantations.
Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC, or Artistic Centre of Congolese Plantation Workers) is a group of former Unilever plantation workers who make compelling figurative sculptures out of the Congo clay. These are then 3D digitally printed in Amsterdam to form a mould into which chocolate from the original African plantations is poured.
Set up by the provocative Dutch artist Renzo Martens in 2014, CATPC uses a proportion of its art profits to buy back land from Unilever. In 2017 Rem Koolhaas’ blue chip OMA even opened a gallery space on the collective’s former plantation site: an incongruous white cube that seeks to address the inequality and transform the former plantation into an art-tourism and research haven. The idea was first inspired by Martens’ 2008 film Enjoy Poverty, which exposed the precariousness and extreme suffering of Unilever plantation workers, who earn less than a $1 a day. He thought that if the workers can’t survive off their plantation labour, maybe they can live off their art and its critical engagement.
For Nikolaus Oberhuber, the co-founder of KOW, most political art can be highly problematic: “If an artist points his finger at something that is unfair or is unacceptable, but then still gets to take home his $100,000 – and so does the gallery – then in the end the cause can be lost.” Where CATPC differs is in its genuine capacity to make us ask: who are the consumers and who are the real profiteers of this work?
So, does KOW get the usual commission from selling CATPC’s artworks? “The relationship stays the same,” Oberhuber says. The artists involved in the group include Djonga Bismar, Mathieu Kilapi Kasiama, Irene Kanga, Cedrick Tamasala, Mbuku Kimpala and Mananga Kibuila. The chocolate sculptures range in price from €2500 to €15,000.
Artworks in the heart of the liberal artworld expose the hypocrisies of displaying conscientious art in institutions that still benefit from modern-day slavery.
Through a series of increasingly prominent exhibitions in the US and Europe, CATPC have implanted their artworks right in the heart of the liberal artworld: exposing the hypocrisies of displaying conscientious art in institutions that still benefit from modern-day slavery. For decades major art hubs have profited from corporate sponsorships, financed by companies that have extracted their capital directly from plantations. That relationship is typified by Unilever’s lavish artworld philanthropy. Between 2000 and 2012 they sponsored Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, commissioning major artists like Ai Weiwei.
KOW’s upcoming exhibition will feature two or three editions of a chocolate sculpture by Irene Kanga depicting a violent rape scene. Despite the grimness of its subject, it is an exhibition that will, deservingly, be appreciated by Berlin’s cultural scene. And after years of turning a blind eye, a small group of Congolese artists is forcing the artworld to confront its complicity in exploitative economic systems.
CATPC, KOW, Kreuzberg. Starts in February / March