Congolese Plantation Workers Are Making a Living Selling Chocolate Sculptures to the Art World
In 1911, British industrialists William and James Lever signed an agreement with the Congo Free State, allowing them to establish new plantations in the Congo. Over a century later, their international consumer goods giant, now known as Unilever, continues to capitalize on the labor of plantation workers. And it’s this economic disparity, between vastly underpaid plantation workers and the major international corporations they work for, that’s inspired the activities of a Congolese art league based in Lusanga.
This league, the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), was formed with the intent to create a better livelihood for plantation workers, through the adoption of commercial art practices of the Western world. At the core of their practice is an economic initiative that has already proven successful: the production of chocolate sculptures that are sold through European art galleries (they will be on offer next month at The Armory Show in New York, with KOW and Galerie Fons Welters). And now, following an exhibition at the U.K.’s Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, the sculptures and drawings of CATPC are being shown for the first time in the U.S. at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York.
“It’s interesting to consider these works and the project of CATPC in terms of the economic implications,” says SculptureCenter curator Ruba Katrib, who organized the New York exhibition. “This plantation economy is funding and supporting so many corporations and producing a lot of wealth, which is being circulated through many different avenues, but of course also goes to the art world as well.” As Katrib notes, the works shine a light on the arts funding that comes from companies like Unilever, which supported Tate Modern’s exhibitions in the Turbine Hall in the past. In such cases, art is financed by companies that engender inequality. In addition to this, CATPC’s sculptures are alluring vehicles that serve to remind viewers that the chocolate industry is dependent on the disadvantaged plantation workers who harvest cacao.
CATPC was formally established in 2014 by a group of plantation workers, artists, and an ecologist. The group—now at 12 members and counting—came together through the support of Dutch artist Renzo Martens and his research project the Institute of Human Activities (IHA), which he formed in 2012 in an effort to prove that art can have an actual impact on economic disparity.
“Jean-Francois Mombia, a leading activist and policy maker in Congo, was the first to have the idea of going to Lusanga,” explains IHA research coordinator Nicolas Jolly. “Lusanga was a perfect place for such an endeavour as the plantation wasn’t operating under corporate rule anymore.” There, the IHA gathered three Kinshasa-based artists—Mega Mingiedi, Michel Ekeba, and Eléonore Hellio—to begin giving art workshops to locals.
“We did the first sculpture workshop and we didn’t know if people would respond to it locally,” Hellio recalls, “but it actually worked, people were very responsive.” An art teacher for 25 years, Hellio had been teaching in the Congo since 2006 when she met Martens and became involved with IHA. From these workshops in 2014, CAPTC formed organically.
The idea to use chocolate for the sculptures was not just for its symbolic strength, but also as a logistical solution. “Clay sculptures were too difficult to export from the plantation,” Jolly explains, “however, IHA rapidly found out that the material exported from the plantations, in particular cocoa, was already in Europe, especially in Amsterdam which is the biggest cocoa port of the world. So we figured out that it was better to use existing value chains.” The group developed a process whereby CATPC members create sculptures in Lusanga from clay that is sourced locally. They then create 3D scans of their works, and send the image files to Amsterdam; these sculptures are then 3D printed as molds, which are used by a chocolatier to realize the final sculptures.
In terms of subject matter, the sculptures are primarily human figures, inspired by the personal and family histories of group members. “They are self-representations,” Hellio explains, “some of them are self-portraits, but sometimes they represent ancestors; they gather the multigenerational knowledge of the people making them.” The SculptureCenter exhibition brings together existing chocolate sculptures (each work is part of an edition) and fresh ones specifically produced for the occasion. Despite what one may assume, the chocolate is relatively stable, though the sculptures need to be kept in temperatures below 70 degrees.
Hellio emphasizes that the works are remarkable for their artistic merit, but also for their conceptual significance. “Some of the artists that work with us harvest this cacao, which is sold to these companies,” Hellio says, and adds that with these sculptures, “the cacao, for the first time has the vision, the thoughts, the emotions of some of the workers who harvest the cacao.”
With profits thus far, CATPC members have not only been able earn a decent living, but they’ve also created their own smaller plantation where they can work for themselves. This spring, they will open a research center, complete with an exhibition space and a garden. “The whole project is against monoculture, so they’re making their own gardens and plantations, and trying to create sustainable modes of working on a smaller scale,” Katrib explains.
“We hope that it makes people more conscious of the value change,” Hellio offers, “how a product like chocolate—a luxury product that makes people happy—is actually harvested by people who live in difficult conditions, people who have as much intellectual and creative abilities as western artists who have greater opportunities.”