Some Objects Need to Be Buried

Interview by Kathleen Weyts
18 April 2024

© Léonard Pongo

Ced’Art Tamasala

Rietveld Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2024, La Biennale di Venezia, and White Cube, Lusanga, from 20 April through 24 November 2024,,


The neighbourhood where I live is marked by two buildings that symbolise a dream of the future. On one side is the gutted building of the former Citroën garage, which will soon house KANAL, Brussels’ first contemporary art museum. For years, real estate speculators have been eagerly preparing for the gentrification of this semi-industrial neighbourhood, which is a stone’s throw from both Brussels’ hip Dansaert district and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. The planned museum, which with its projected 35,000 square metres will soon become Belgium’s largest cultural institution, is making urban developers and politicians dream of a ‘Tate effect’. Large new apartment buildings are being erected on the edge of the canal. For several years now, the Brussels beau monde has been having lunch or dinner in the star restaurant around the corner, private collections and prestigious galleries are nestling in the neighbourhood. On the other side is the Klein Kasteeltje (little castle), once a military barracks in the early days of Belgian sovereignty. Its strategic position across the canal from the industrial area of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek meant that carabiniers and grenadiers could be deployed to swiftly quell labour unrest. In the mid-1980s, the building was converted into a reception centre for asylum seekers; it is now the oldest and largest of its kind in Belgium. The Brussels-Scheldt Canal and a once majestic double avenue of trees form the geographical link between the two buildings, future museum and notorious reception centre. Against the beautiful old facades, young men – most of them of African origin – huddle together. Many of them risked their lives in the hope of a better life in Europe, a dream they saw mercilessly go up in smoke once they arrived. While waiting for a residence permit or asylum status that may never come, they find their way to Brussels’ informal labour market. For many of them, it becomes the only way to survive their forced illegal existence. Those looking for cheap labour know the where to find it. A few metres from the star restaurant is the Salvation Army, a place where second-hand items are not (yet) sold as overpriced vintage for boho’s and still find their way to the city’s least fortunate. Migration, poverty, and wealth cohabit here, just metres apart. These political and economic refugees, who endure all manner of weather here in the hope of a meagre daily wage, seek above all a more humane existence. Their presence pushes us daily face many painful facts. Nowhere else in the city is contemporary reality so visibly linked to the consequences of the Belgian and, by extension, European colonial past. Migration will soon be the stake of our elections and the polls, reflecting a Europe-wide trend, forecast an unprecedented shift to the (extreme) right. The seeds of this displacement were sown decades ago. The privileged – by virtue of race, class, location, chance or other circumstances – are afraid of losing their prosperity; rather than consume, rather than compromise or share, rather than care for nature and their fellow humans, they cling desperately to outdated values.

It is almost ironic that the Brussels Capital Region chose precisely this spot in the city as the site of the prestigious KANAL project. Anyone who is familiar with the history of European museums and heritage will know that much of what we consider ‘our’ culture – the objects, artefacts, techniques, and styles that we use to narrate ourselves – is the result of mostly violent dispossession and appropriation, of interaction and exchange with former colonies. Our art institutions can no longer ignore this. In addition to issues of restitution, a growing number of critical voices are raising questions about how our institutions have been and are funded. ‘Artwashing’ is no longer bon ton. Nor can European art institutions afford to continue catering mainly to a white, highly educated audience. A museum in the making such as KANAL will no longer be able to rely on historical blindness; in its programming, collections, and management, it will have to address new social expectations. In this respect, the museum is being planned at exactly the right moment in the country’s history, at exactly the right place in its capital. Ambitions have been expressed to connect with the city’s diverse residents, and some resources are already being actively deployed to achieve this. Themes that resonate with the aspirations of an active and empowered diaspora, spanning many identities in a city like Brussels, guide the project. Yet we can already predict that, whatever the well-meaning aspirations behind this story, the numerous young men squatting in this neighbourhood today – hoping to fulfil their dreams for a liveable future – probably won’t be a part of it. We can legitimately ask whether it is up to the art establishment and those working in the arts to resolve this gross social inequality. And it is easy to quickly answer: No, of course not.


A day’s drive from Kinshasa, Lusanga lies at the confluence of the Kwilu and Kwenge rivers, surrounded by an impoverished landscape. During Belgian colonial rule, the area became the site of the headquarters of the Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB), a subsidiary of Lever Brothers, after the Brit William Lever obtained concessions from the Belgian government to exploit wild oil palms in the region in 1911. The town was christened ‘Leverville’. Surrounded by thousands of hectares of palm oil plantations, it grew into a city, driven by the ‘civilising mission’ of its colonisers. Conceived as a tropical utopia, in practice it became a centre of rampant capitalism characterised by forced labour and brutal suppression, leading to violent conflicts and culminating in the great Pende uprising in the region in 1931. Two years earlier, Lever Brothers had merged with the Dutch Margarine Unie to become the first modern multinational company, with 250,000 ‘employees’. The Second World War, Congolese independence in 1960, nationalisation under Mobutu in 1973 and the reclamation of the plantations by Unilever in 1977 plunged the local population into ever greater poverty. In 2009, Unilever left its last Congolese plantations, which became available for exploitation by other more or less affiliated companies, leaving its former workers without electricity, running water and other basic services. One year earlier, a young Dutch artist had dropped a proverbial bomb on the art world with his provocative film ‘Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty’, which revealed – in a manner that could be described as ‘ruthless’ – the breathtaking poverty of Congolese plantation workers. Renzo Martens’ blunt questioning of both the duplicitous role of NGOs and the contemporary art world’s complicity in exploitative economies lead to fierce debates and hundreds of pages of critical articles on the subject. The late Okwui Enwezor perhaps best summed up Martens’ demarche: ‘notable for both its courage and its illiteracy’.1

  1. Comment made during the presentation of Enwezor’s publication ‘Contemporary Art Since 1980’, January 21, 2010, Felix Meritis, Amsterdam

The artist’s critics notwithstanding, today, 16 years later, we might once again give him due credit for his audacity and enterprise. ‘Enjoy Poverty’ led directly to the founding of the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) in 2012, followed by the failed launch of an art community settlement in Boteka. Two years later, after investigating other regions in the DRC, Martens’ ambition ultimately touched ground in Lusanga, where CATPC, ‘Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise’, was established. Today, this cooperative of plantation workers is the driving force behind a project as ambitious as it is unique. In 2024, CATPC and Renzo Martens will realise another shared ambition, as CATPC is selected to represent the Netherlands at the 60th Venice Biennale. However controversial Martens’ work may be, perhaps it is time for his critics to look beyond the artist’s naivety, ego, illiteracy, mistakes, provocation, beyond the loaded categories – white, male, European – that sometimes overshadow his work. Maybe we must admit that Martens and his Institute for Human Activities accomplished something that few other artists or people working in the arts have before: to create a level playing field between the institutions in global cities and a community of people who were never taken seriously by Westerners.

It can be easy from a remote position to criticise CATPC’s project. It is a different matter when you are part of the community actually living in Lusanga, dealing collectively with the burden of their – our – history and contemporary reality. Who else but the artists and plantation workers themselves that could testify to this reality? And who are we, players in the European/Afropean art world, to judge their claims? The collective’s plea to be heard by the international art world can never lead to a mode of participation that is truly based upon equality – given the unfathomable economic gaps imposed by colonialism and capitalism. But if we have the courage to listen and to embrace their proposal, if we can admit that we are not the ones who need to be heard in this story, but that we are the ones that are summoned to be judged, then things might change.


‘Our participation at the Venice biennale is of course very political, how could it not be?’ states Ced’art Tamasala, one of the founding members of CATPC. We’re talking via a Zoom connection between Brussels and Lusanga. ‘The exclusion of artists from Congo, especially artists coming from remote regions like ours, but also artists living and working on plantations elsewhere in the world, is a fact. We do not have access to the structures, actors, nor the opportunities that artists who have access to Western resources can rely upon. Consequently, we do not nurture the same dreams. The most important thing for us is not our presence as such at the biennial, but the fact that we can use this international platform to be heard and that this invitation offers us the opportunity to make a difference for our own community. Today we talk speak of the post-plantation. We constructed our own pavilion, our own white cube. For us, it symbolises the undeniable role that plantation workers played in the past and still play today in the existence of Western museums and the international art world. For us, this is a moment to come to terms with our colonial past. We were born in the ruins of a plantation that was part of the colonial system and made us dependent on a monoculture. It is a legacy we did not ask for, but we have to deal with. The invitation from the Dutch government to submit a project for the pavilion in Venice offers us the unique opportunity to speak up and be heard. In Venice, we want to share the sacred, our deep relationship with the land, this land without which our sculptures would not exist. It has to do with more than the artificial, it has to do with life itself; we live life in its natural state and we want to share that with our art. We want to share the life that’s in the seeds and that will be in our sculptures, drawn from the clay that’s been taken from our land, the land we’ve bought back with the profits from our art and that will later become art again – that’s the cycle we want to share. We want to take the place that has not been given to us. We’re inviting ourselves to a party that’s not meant for people in dirty clothes, the people who work the plantations aren’t clean, they’re sweaty. We say that we, the plantation workers, also have the right to this party. We’re bringing our sacred wisdom that unites people, we care about each other. How can you drive around in your electric car if you know that cobalt is killing people? How can you eat a bar of chocolate without a care in the world, knowing that women, children and men are dying slowly in places where cocoa is grown? Sharing the sacred also means taking a place that we have not been given. That’s why our white cube in Lusanga is participating from a distance, imposing itself as it were on this event to which we were not invited’.

‘The role that we and the generations before us have played in the development of the Western art world has been ignored and denied over the years. Revenues from plantations worldwide have funded Western museums and art collections. Summoning the white cube to our premises allows us to call attention to these scandals and bring them under international scrutiny.’ – Ced’art Tamasala

© Léonard Pongo

The White Cube

‘The white cube is a Western construction par excellence. The construction of such a building in the ruins of the Lusanga plantation has multiple resonances. Its presence is problematic, but it offers us the possibility to judge it on our own terms. With the film ‘The Judgement of the White Cube’, we address its ignored and violent history. The white cube has its roots in plantations like ours. Without the labour of our ancestors and contemporary plantation workers, it could not exist. By evoking the white cube in the plantation, we can confront its legacy and claim our rightful place. The role that we and the generations before us have played in the development of the Western art world has been ignored and denied over the years. Revenues from plantations worldwide, from tobacco plantations in Indonesia to palm oil plantation like ours, have funded Western museums and art collections. Everyone is aware of the tight links between Unilever and Tate, but no one dwells on the fact that behind Unilever’s generosity lies a decades-long history of exploitation. Summoning the white cube to our premises allows us to call attention to these scandals and bring them under international scrutiny. The immaculate walls of the white cube obscure the sweat and blood of plantation workers. Its pure and shining appearance symbolises the erasure of a violent past. Artworks are displayed in the bright white space, only those willing to look closely realise that these displays obscure an ugly truth. The Western museum model is built on the sweat and blood of our labour, we are the involuntary funders of a system from which we ourselves are excluded, where we have no right to speak.’

‘Why do we make our sculptures in chocolate? Why do we display them in Western art institutions? Why do we have our own white cube today? It is a form of soft revenge, a form of justice for our community. We have judged the white cube and have found it guilty of misdeeds towards us. It is time for it to repay its outstanding debt. At the same time, we call upon the white cube to liberate the things that have been unlawfully stolen from us, objects but also the land. The ritual of the judgement enables us to throw off the yoke of colonisation and to write our own story, to reconnect with our own past. The white cube is not a structure we would have conceived without the past that we share with our oppressors. The objects that the Western world conserves and puts on display were not called art by our ancestors. Which doesn’t mean they were not of value. We, too, kept them in special places and they fulfilled a crucial role in our community. It is ‘our’ heritage that is shown in Western museums today, yet those objects are displayed to illustrate a story that is not necessarily ours; they are classified there, archived according to rules that are far removed from our own. The place they occupy in our community is not the place of the museum – it is a sacred place. Not all objects are made to be shown, some objects need to be buried. Some objects exist purely to connect with our ancestors, they are bearers of a spiritual cause and therefore should not be revealed. These objects play a crucial role in our existence, they inspire us and give us strength. The colonial era has separated us from who we truly are, it has created a rupture between the spiritual and the human world. Today we want to restore that connection.’

Mbuku Kimpala, © Léonard Pongo


‘It’s true that we’ve lost a lot, but there are fragments that remain in each region. In some communities, we’ve already reached an advanced stage of extinction, there are no more living practices left, the transmission of our traditions has ceased. I’ve got nothing against Christianity, but it had a negative effect on our cultures. Today’s revivalist churches claim that our traditional rites are witchcraft, that we have to do away with them. Only a few communities are resisting, they’ve managed to keep remnants, fragments of customs, and that’s where we’re getting stuck. The Pende still have a solid base, they still have roots, even if the tree has been cut down, new branches are sprouting. We hope that this will enable us to reconnect with our ancestors, so that we can express ourselves in our language and touch inspiration, creation, the immaterial, all that which makes a people feel worthy and in the process of evolving. And we’ve managed to decipher codes, we learn to create and to express ourselves in our languages with pride. Today, to be noticed, you have to speak either French or English. It’s nice to be able to communicate in the great global village, but at the same time, when it implies losing your own language, it implies losing yourself. We can’t go back to the way things were, we can no longer do what our ancestors did. But we can recover some parts of our history and learn from them: their lifestyle, their way of seeing things, the way they lived in harmony with the earth, with the surrounding nature, we can learn from their closeness to the spirits … We can recover all this and reincorporate it into our lives. Modernity tends create a separation between itself and everything that is past, everything that is old, but we can see that it’s not what came before us that is destroying the world, it is the ‘new’ that is destroying humanity. We need coltan, oil, diamonds … and all that digging for resources destabilises nature. Our ancestors had a different connection with the earth than we do. That’s what we want to establish today, we want to live with respect for nature, respect for ourselves. Colonisation decimated the collective spirit that was at the heart of our ancestors’ way of life. Our ancestors hunted together, farmed together, harvested together, they lived together and they fought together for survival. Colonisation introduced individualism, everyone for themselves, everyone in their own little hut, everyone for their own family; we lost that spirit of unity. And that’s what we’re gradually rediscovering. Before, it was forbidden to sing our songs, to carve masks, to conduct our rites. We had to go and cut the palm nuts to reach the quotas set by the company. Today, we are the co-owners of our own lands, we share 200 collective hectares. We grow useful, meaningful crops, not just palm oil trees. We plant fruit trees, trees that fertilize the soil, we started cultivating cacao plants. It was the women who proposed cultivating a large field to combat food shortages. Today, we grow what we need, we learned how to keep bees … And above all, we’re back in the fields with everyone’.

Matthieu Kiasama, © Léonard Pongo

The Balot statue

‘The sculpture we call Balot here is originally known by the name Kamundele. It’s not a name that’s used a lot because it’s been associated with the Pende as man-eaters. Over time, it created a really bad image of our people. The very existence of this sculpture and references to the human parts of Balot that have been cut up are taboo subjects… we don’t talk about them, we avoid them. If you ask a Pende about it he will say, ‘No, we don’t talk about that, let’s talk about something else’. The fact that this sculpture left the Congo was a strange coincidence, the person who sold it wasn’t even aware of its history. When it left the country, it lost all its significance. During our research, we met the professor who bought it for 120 dollars. To obtain the return of a purchased object, it would have to be proven that the statue was taken out of the country illegally. It’s a long-term battle. We started in 2020, by travelling all the way to Richmond in the US, where we never saw the sculpture. We applied for a loan, this was the first step. We had to open the discussion. The museum refused to consider the question of the temporary return of the statue to its country of origin. I talked about tradition earlier. The way our objects are used in the museum is not how we relate to them. We use them to establish a link with our ancestors, we talk to them. This is the first reason why the sculpture must return to Lusanga, to enable us to reconnect with the community of elders. To regain the language that we’ve lost. After all, the object in question does not belong to Richmond; but the museum has become attached to it, like many museums have become attached to objects that belong to communities elsewhere in the world. It has become difficult for them to part with it. And the question: to whom should it be returned? Where should it go? Our national museums are going to try to get it, the communities of origin are going to try to get it, everyone is going to try to get it. But for us, it’s the secret inside the object that’s most important. It’s the same secret that allowed Picasso to draw inspiration from Pende art, and to influence an entire period with his own art. It’s this secret that we need. Today, the objects themselves no longer belong to a single community, they belong to all of humanity, without excluding anyone. It can inspire everyone, even artists in Japan and Latin America. To enclose it in our white cube would be to make the same mistake as the museum in Richmond. We want to liberate the statue, both spiritually and physically. These discussions must continue, but we must see that they don’t lead to new ruptures. We need to gather round the table. That’s how we can courageously look to the future, between those who have dominated before and those who have been dominated. We need to talk as equals and think about the future of humanity, because at the end of the day we’re all human, we all come from the same ancestors. In Lusanga, the Balot sculpture will be accompanied by other statues, drawings, films and rituals; for us, these are also part of what can be considered art. There will be rites that will be visible and there will also be rites that will be off-limits to the public because they will be performed by our elders. There will be a whole universe of comprehensible and incomprehensible things. During the passage of the Balot, the traditional ceremonies will serve our community.’

© Léonard Pongo

Come to Lusanga

‘We are a structured organisation, we have articles of association, a board of directors, an elected chair and vice-chair, and we hold general meetings of our members. When there’s a collective need we share it and every member has the right to speak and give their opinion. If we don’t agree, we hold a vote, and that way we can decide on the direction to take. People often ask us about our collaboration with Renzo Martens. I think it’s important to point out that remorse or even good intentions aren’t enough these days. You have to take action, that is what we need. We don’t need big books, big speeches, big talkers, we don’t need people, even from the diaspora, who perhaps don’t know the reality of the people on the plantations to judge us from a distance. Women are paid nine dollars a month, can you imagine nine dollars, what do you do with that? How can you survive on nine dollars? The men are paid twenty dollars. And people are removed from all that, they write big articles, and they have the right to do that, but before you judge, you have to come to the plantations, to the ruins. You have to come and see how our women carry twice their weight across distances of many kilometres to provide water, wood, food. You have to witness how the men struggle to find work, looking for land they can cultivate to feed their families. That’s our reality today. And I’d really like for there to be an exchange with this critical diaspora, with all those who find themselves elsewhere and think they must judge our project. But if they come, they will also see our autonomy, our desires, they will see the women doing the accounts of the income from the sale of manioc, the sale of works of art, they will see how we make and change our lives. What Renzo has done is his contribution. Today, many Europeans feel guilty; when they look at what their European ancestors did in Africa, some of them feel ashamed. When Renzo arrived, I didn’t know he’d made ‘Enjoy Poverty’. But when I saw that film, I saw that it talked about the war in the East, about all the funds that are leaking out, he talked about aid that isn’t aid but that engulfs the country in indeterminable debt, he talked about all that. Congolese filmmakers are the ones who should be making films like this, it’s African filmmakers who should be denouncing all this. Maybe they would be risking their lives, it’s true. But if Renzo took his stand and said those things, he didn’t stop there. He came back, he joined us, he tried to do his bit, his contribution as a European and as a beneficiary of everything that had already been done before him.

We went to Amsterdam and saw tons of cocoa, stocks that came from all over the world. You can’t just stay in Amsterdam and say you’re against neo-colonialism while eating your nice chocolate bar in comfort and watching from a distance. Renzo is on the ground, he came here and he contributes in his own way. And don’t forget – for the most part, it’s us who are making this project happen. We take our destiny into our own hands. You really have to come to Lusanga to see that. What we do, we do in a collective spirit. We work together, as equals, with mutual respect and in the spirit of solidarity – that’s the future of humanity, not excluding others. Getting rich on the back of slavery is not going to get us anywhere.’

© Léonard Pongo