Renzo Martens’ White Cube departs from a straightforward premise. Art comes from a position of privilege, and from this point on it asks us: how to represent one’s struggle, poverty, or a life that has been stripped from every one of the so-called universal human rights in an ethical way? Is this even possible? The film proposes that it is not; however, art should be made against such a failure, in spite of it, not inspired by it. Hence why it is relevant to highlight how Martens begins his film with a failure and an impossibility, for after showing one of his previous works, specifically one about Africa, in a British museum he notices that all those people were together to see a film about Africa while inside walls supported by money from Unilever. The same company that has plantations all over the Congo and whose employees, interviewed by him, get no more than one dollar per day. Therefore this is Martens’ failure, this documentary’s failure, the art world’s failure. What to do with art that, much like the pieces shown in the Tate Museum for example, is financially supported by what is taken from these people by Unilever and many other big companies.
Again, White Cube departs from the acknowledgment of a failure, and despite that it manages to offer something; if art begets money, it could also be an instrument of some change, just like any other economic concept and endeavor. Martens begins his project of the construction of an art center within a piece of land used as a plantation by Unilever, so that the workers could represent their world, on their own terms, and the profits could remain with them. Symbolically enough in one scene some workers create statues out of chocolate mixed with other materials, and in the next, via a projector installed in their village, they watch people in Europe buying their art in an exhibition that ironically serves chocolate as aperitif.
However, despite White Cube allowing Congolese people to show their art and talk about how they perceive themselves and their life’s conditions, it also departs from white guilt which is in itself an epitome of privilege. Martens’ first words in the film are a recognition of how he has benefited from inequality and structural racism and the ensuing guilt that only got worse, especially after shooting a film in Africa. In a sense, more than being an artist filming poverty in the developing world for the consumption of Europeans, he is also half-Dutch, coming from a country whose history has its colonialist roots running deep in that area. So what makes the film different is then the certainty that things are complicated, and history casts its shadow over us in a way that will never allow us to be through with the past, but that doesn’t mean that accountability is impossible or that a few names couldn’t and shouldn’t be said out loud; for if history is the hammer, the hand which strikes the blows has a name.
Here naming becomes the first step towards a long and uncertain, despite being much-needed, process of decolonization of museums, and as a consequence of memory and history itself. In the words of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe: “Memory is, above all else, a question of responsibility with respect to something of which one is often not the author. Moreover, I believe that one only truly becomes a human being to the degree that one is capable of answering to what one is not the direct author of, and to the person with whom one has, seemingly, nothing in common. There is, truly, no memory except in the body of commands and demands that the past not only transmits to us but also requires us to contemplate. I suppose the past obliges us to reply in a responsible manner. So there is no memory except in the assignment of such a responsibility.”
In this film Unilever is to blame; so is the Tate Museum; so is every artist who uses poverty as a muse without acknowledging that there is no beauty in it and neither should real people’s suffering be a trigger to another’s process of self-reflection. Here I must do a small digression and turn my attention to Chloé Zhao’s acclaimed Nomadland as a counter-example. Beautiful sunsets don’t make up for inequality because that same beautiful sunset shines over everyone’s head. Some people are just privileged enough to have time to look up and stare at the sun. There’s nothing ontologically meaningful in this. Meaning is bestowed. The same way an actor working alongside real workers in search of a much fetishized realism not only fails to prove the point the film is trying to make but also shows how even within a liberal frame of mind, poverty is something that narrative could use to improve a character’s development and nothing else. It feeds a twisted idea that ‘poor people’, ‘people from the third world’ would have something to teach, not because alterity would teach something but because their suffering would show some people that their lives are not as tough as they complain about.