Buried in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a secret artist colony.
Its whereabouts are, for now, unknown except to teaching volunteers and nine hand-picked artists who, when not toiling on a local plantation, sculpt and draw.
Renzo Martens, a Dutch artist who has spearheaded the project, known as the Institute for Human Activities, has grand visions.
“I hope it will become central Africa’s most brilliant, extravagant and beautiful place for contemporary art,” he says.
The DRC is a country that continues to struggle both economically and politically. Given that it is also one of the poorest countries in the world (it ranks 168 out of 178 on the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom), Martens’ goal may seem not merely lofty, but misplaced. He begs to differ.
“It’s quite important that these people get to contribute to global debates, on poverty, on development, but they’re so damn poor they won’t ever contribute. They don’t have enough money to buy a cell phone, let alone take a course in English so they can talk to you about it,” he says.
“We’re trying to make sure their political vision, their mental state, their voices, aren’t only given a platform, but that they’re remunerated and paid for speaking, because these are two things they need most: they need to be heard and they need to make money.”
A vision in chocolate
Currently, the resident artists use clay found in the local riverbeds to make self-portraits that Martens describes as “quite deep and harrowing in many ways.”
The sculptures are scanned and brought back to Amsterdam, where they’re reconstructed as chocolate busts using 3D printing.
Martens hopes to sell the finished products at a handful of planned exhibits in Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as in Art Brussels and Art Cologne. The proceeds, he says, will go back to the artists.
At $60 per bust, Martens estimates the price per gram of chocolate soars 7,000%.
“People in Congo export a lot. They export cocoa, for instance, but cocoa doesn’t speak. If you add emotions, all of a sudden it does speak, and as soon as it starts speaking, it’s worth a lot more money. That’s the big joke. You add feelings and emotions to chocolate and you get a 7,000 percent surplus.”
The exploitation equation
The art world has a long history of exploiting the Congo, says Martens, from Western journalists who capitalize on selling images of impoverished locals, to multinational corporations like Unilever, who pay plantation workers a mere $240 annually while simultaneously sponsoring one of the world’s most significant modern art series.
“Look at where the surplus money that Unilever spends on subsidizing these art exhibits comes from. It comes from people working on the plantations,” he says.
Perhaps as a criticism of the economics of modern art, the original location for the Institute for Human Activities was on a former Unilever plantation, since bought out by Canadian firm Feronia. The institute was evicted from the plantation last year. Martens says Feronia told him the project was distracting their workers.
“We don’t want to be disturbed,” says Martens as to why the current location is secret.
“Some of Feronia’s workers work with us, and we don’t want them to be fired. We think it’s just safer if nobody knows where it is.”