Critics’ Picks

View of “Renzo Martens,” 2015.

View of “Renzo Martens,” 2015.


Renzo Martens

KOW | Berlin
Lindenstraße 35
May 2–July 26, 2015

In a world that treasures and rewards gestures of good will—and I am talking about the art world here—Renzo Martens is one of the few artists who puts his money where his mouth is. When an artist shows a work about poverty in underdeveloped nations in typical art-world locales such as New York, Berlin, or the Venice Biennale, the effects—such as the generation of capital—are only felt in those places; it does nothing to benefit or appease the suffering of the distant subjects of the work.

Through his Institute for Human Activities, Martens has worked to establish an artists’ colony on a former Unilever plantation in the Congolese rain forest. For this unabashed gentrification project, Martens intentionally employs that contentious tool of the neoliberal economy in an environment so desperate that it could only profit from it. The initiative provides an infrastructure for fostering plantation residents’ artistic talent in order to supply them with the living wage and basic necessities they currently lack.

This exhibition consists of figurative sculptures by six of the artists from the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League: Dionga Bismar, Mathieu Kasiama, Cedrick Tamasala, Jeremie Mabiala, Thomas Leba, and Daniel Manenga. As logistics forbade the transport of the original clay sculptures, they were re-created from digital scans by professional chocolatiers in Amsterdam using raw cocoa harvested on plantations near the settlement. Deeply allegorical and rooted in local mythologies as well as the artists’ personal narratives—Tamasala’s How My Grandfather Survived (all works 2015) dramatizes his grandfather’s alienation from his native culture after succumbing to a Belgian missionary—the sculptures’ rich and sweet smell filling the space indicates a source of significant artistic and spiritual wealth.