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Cacao and Art in the Congo

The Spirit of Palm Oil (2014), Djonga Bismar

Chocolate enthusiasts are becoming increasingly aware of gross inequalities in the cacao sector. Plantation workers are notoriously exploited, wages are low, housing can be substandard, schools and health care, if available, often inadequate. With value added at each point along the cacao supply chain, profits accrue at the other end to international companies that manufacture the chocolate. An apparent contradiction also exists. Chocolate is rarely part of the cultural traditions of cacao-producing countries, whether in culinary practices or as a comestible, and often workers have never seen, let alone tasted, a chocolate bar. Similarly, in the North where beans are processed into chocolate, consumers do not know the provenance of the chocolate they eat or the cocoa powder they use for baking. The exhibit of the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, or CATPC) at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York, casts light on critical issues affecting the circulation of commodities and wealth within an increasingly connected, but inequitable, global economy. Profits obtained directly from plantations have been used for the production and acquisition of art in faraway cities, exacerbating social inequality and global disparities. With plantation economies funding the life styles and art consumed in the West, can such an imbalance be reversed? Can wealth extracted from critically acclaimed art be recycled back to plantations, thus smashing centuries-old patterns of colonialism and the unidirectional flow of profits? These are some of the central questions of the ScultureCenter's first art exhibit by members of the CATPC collective. The participating artists are plantation workers who live in Lusanga, formerly Leverville, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the early 20th century, the village was renamed after William Lever, the Belgian founder of the local palm oil plantation which later emerged as the multinational Unilever corporation. Sourcing primary materials from the plantations where they work, artists in the collective have created sculptures, some life-size, others smaller in scale, rendered in cacao. The sculptures are first molded in clay, then 3D printed and cast in chocolate. Profits from the sale in Europe and the U.S. of these figurative sculptures as well as pen-and-ink drawings are circulating back to the plantation village to pay for basic amenities which the laborers cannot afford. This cycle is captured in the art works -- from a female image “The Spirit of Palm Oil” (above) to “The Art Collector” (below), a seated man with glasses, wearing a suit and cravat; both of whom have cacao leaves decorating their bodies. The entry of CATPC members into the Western commercial art world has been a tremendous boon to the town, financially and culturally, as Congolese artists and workers reflect on and challenge their role and the place of their plantation village in the cacao value chain within the global market.

The show runs from January 29th to March 27th. The exhibit catalog along with small sculptures are available for sale. For more information, follow this link to The New York Times’ article “Art, Poverty, and Chocolate”:

The show Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC)

at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York

The Art Collector (2014), Jérémie Mabiala & Djonga Bismar

How My Grandfather Survived (2015), Cedrick Tamasala

Photos: the author

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