When Dutch artist Renzo Martens presented his film “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” at Tate Modern in London in 2010, he couldn’t help but notice the many Unilever logos painted across the museum’s white walls.
Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company that owns Axe, Dove, Vaseline and other household brands, sponsors the Unilever Series, in which an artist is commissioned to make a site-specific work for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
“Unilever, Unilever, the Unilever series,” Martens says in his latest documentary, “White Cube,” recalling that moment. “The greatest, most famous artists of the world, financed by Unilever.”
Unilever was once nearly ubiquitous, too, in the region of Congo where Martens has worked since 2004. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” from 2008, documented dire conditions on the country’s palm oil plantations, where workers earned less than $1 a day. In “White Cube,” he follows up by visiting former Unilever-owned plantations in the villages of Boteka and Lusanga. (Unilever sold the last of its plantations in Congo in 2009.)
To Martens, Unilever represents a system of global exploitation, in which Western companies extract resources from poorer countries, generate income, and then use some of that wealth to finance high culture elsewhere. Some of the artists they support, he added, also make works focused on inequality, but the benefits of those works rarely go to those in need.
“People on plantations are desperately poor, and they work for the global community,” Martens said in a recent interview in Amsterdam. “They even work, indirectly, for exhibitions in the Tate Modern. Art is sterile if it proclaims to be about inequality but doesn’t bring benefits to those people.”
“I wanted to make sure that a critique of inequality would, at least partially, and materially, redress that inequality,” he added.
Martens’ art career took off after “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” and he said that he decided at that time to use his new position of influence in the art world to attempt a “reverse gentrification project.” The aim was to bring art directly to the plantations, to stimulate economic development there. “White Cube,” a 77-minute film that is screening in art centers across the world this month, including in Eindhoven, Netherlands; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tokyo, documents that process. The movie will also screen in the Copenhagen Documentary Festival, which runs April 21 through May 2.
“White Cube” is both a film and a record of a project seeking to transform a community through art. By linking the wealthy international art world directly to an impoverished African plantation, Martens demonstrates how fortunes across the globe are intertwined. Central to the endeavor are issues of restitution, repatriation and perhaps even reparations. The underlying question that “White Cube” poses is: What does art owe to the communities from which it has extracted so much?
Such questions are particularly relevant today as governments have vowed to identify art looted from the African continent in their public museums. President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged in 2017 to begin a large-scale repatriation. He commissioned a study, which found that 90% to 95% of African art is held by museums outside Africa. An advisory committee to the Dutch government last year also recommended that the Netherlands should also return art to its former colonies.
“What needs to be restituted is not just old objects — for sure that needs to happen — but it’s also about the infrastructure,” Martens said. “Where does art take place? Where is art allowed to attract capital, visibility, and legitimacy for people?”
“White Cube” begins in 2012, when Martens attempts to bring art to an operational plantation in Boteka. It quickly goes wrong, and he is chased out of the community under threats made by a Congolese company that took over running the plantation after Unilever pulled out.
He is more successful when he tries again in Lusanga, a village once known as Leverville, after William Lever, founder of a company that later became Unilever. Lever established one of his first Congolese plantations there, in 1911. The Leverville operation closed down in the 1990s, leaving behind buildings that became derelict and soil that had become unworkable after a century of intensive single-crop farming.
In the film, Martens says that Unilever obtained its plantations in Congo through a land grant from Belgian colonial administrators in the early 20th century, reaped the profits and depleted the soil, then sold the land and abandoned the enterprise to contractors.
Unilever declined to comment on Martens’ film or on the accusations of exploitation he makes against the company. “Unilever has had no involvement in the DRC plantations since selling them well over 10 years ago,” said Marlous den Bieman, a Unilever spokeswoman, referring to Congo by the acronym for Democratic Republic of Congo.
VR Sunil Gohil