A 20th-century statue representing a Belgian officer killed during a Congolese revolt in 1931 is at the center of a rift between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and an artist collective in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
White Cube, a gallery in Lusanga that is backed by a cooperative known as Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC), had reached out to the VMFA to temporarily bring the work back to the region in the DRC where the 1931 uprising took place and where the work was created. But the museum declined to loan the the statue of the slain colonial official after the group used unauthorized digital images of the work to reproduce as sellable NFTs. The VMFA claims this violated copyright laws.
An edition of 300 NFTs depicting the statue were minted on the blockchain last week with the help of Berlin gallery KOW, which represents CATPC and is partnering with the group for the sale. CATPC plans to start selling its NFTs next month, with the profits going toward buying back land and paying workers in the Congo.
“Every purchase helps to ultimately unleash the powers of the sculpture and make it work for the community,” a Facebook announcement published by KOW on February 11 reads.
The VMFA claims that CATPC took the image from its website. In a statement to ARTnews, a museum representative said that, “despite extensive correspondence,” with the group since February 2020, VMFA never received a request from the organization regarding the NFT, calling the move, “unacceptable and unprofessional.” Though he said that CATPC was not officially given permission to use the picture of the sculpture, Renzo Martens, a director at the White Cube, said the gallery used the image “under the doctrine of fair use.”
The statue depicts Maximilien Balot and is currently on loan to the Reitberg Museum in Zurich, since 2016. Aiming to highlight links between Western museums, looted objects, and the places from which those pieces were taken, the group recently produced a documentary series called “Plantations and Museums,” which examines connections between plantation labor and the funding of Western institutions. The Balot statue figured in one episode.
In 1930, Balot was assigned to oversee the Kwilu region, where conflict had been rising for years between the Pende locales native to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the colonial administration. It was made for the purpose of harnessing the spirit of the slain Belgian officer, which posed a threat to Pende people. Pende craftsmen intentionally made it from natural materials that were meant to deteriorate over time. The museum acquired the sculpture in 1972 from Herbert Weiss, a professor at City University of New York, who bought the work near Lusanga from a Congolese local. It was displayed publicly for the first time at the museum in 2018.
In February 2020, two members of CATPC, Cedart Tamasala and Matthieu Kasama, visited the VMFA to meet with Richard B. Woodward, a curator of African art at the VMFA. During the meeting, which was filmed for the documentary series, the three discussed the potential loan of the work to the Congo gallery. The gallery’s building, which opened in 2017, was designed by Rotterdam-based architecture firm OMA and was built on a former Unilever palm oil plantation in Lusanga.
The dispute comes as Western museums face increased renewed pressure to return artifacts from Africa and as institutions have made forays in the crypto space, minting NFTs of works in their collection. In a statement, the collective called the effort “a radical new model of restitution” in which “blockchain-based NFT technology becomes a tool for decolonization.”