Dispute over loan of Congolese statue escalates into legal battle over NFTs | Art and design

A The statue depicting the angry spirit of a Belgian officer beheaded during a 1931 Congo uprising is at the center of a standoff between an American museum and a Congolese gallery at the site of the rebellion.

The statue of Maximilien Balot, a colonial administrator, traveled to Europe but the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is accused of blocking loan requests to the White Cube gallery in Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The row escalated into a legal dispute after the White Cube sought to raise funds by selling digital images of the Balot statue – known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs – resulting in charges from the VMFA for copyright infringement.

A VMFA spokesperson in Richmond, Va., said “the image was removed directly from the museum’s website without permission, which ‘violates our open access policy and is unacceptable and unprofessional’.”

Renzo Martens, Dutch artist and director of the White Cube, said: “We downloaded the image from the internet, as there is no other material made available by the VMFA. We do not own the copyright for the image, we use it under the doctrine of fair use.

Artist Renzo Martens. Photography: Aled Llywelyn/Athena Pictures/Athena

It was during a revolt against the rape of the wives of men who had refused to work in a palm nut plantation in Lusanga that Balot was massacred.

The brutal Belgian reprisals that followed led to the revolt of the Pende people, one of the last significant rebellions against colonial rule before independence was achieved three decades later. A statue has been carved of Balot’s angry spirit in a bid to control him, experts say.

Diviner figure representing Maximilien Balot, 1931 Pende culture.
Diviner figure representing Maximilien Balot, 1931 Pende culture. Photography: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The statue was purchased in 1972 by Herbert Weiss, professor emeritus at the City University of New York, while on a field trip near Lusanga, formerly known as Leverville after William Lever, the founder of Unilever . Weiss donated it to the VMFA.

The line highlights the tensions between Western institutions displaying colonial-era artifacts and the countries from which the artistic and cultural works were taken.

A still from the Plantations and Museums series by Renzo Martens and CATPC: Cedart Tamasala drawing Balot in the White Cube.
Excerpt from the documentary series Plantations and Museums by Renzo Martens and CATPC: Cedart Tamasala drawing Balot in the White Cube. Photo: Plantations and Museums. Human activities, 2021

The VMFA has 300 staff and an annual income of $21.3m (£15.6m), while the White Cube was set up by former plantation workers and is supported by fundraising by an artists’ cooperative known as the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC).

Cedart Tamasala and Matthieu Kasama, two representatives of the CATPC, visited the VMFA in February 2020 where they first requested a loan of the statue.

Matthieu Kasiama of the CATPC in an image taken from Plantations and Museums.
Matthieu Kasiama of the CATPC in a photo from the Plantations and Museums series. Photo: Plantations and Museums. Human activities, 2021

A documentary filmmaker traveling with the pair captured the response of their guide, Professor Richard Woodward, a former curator of African art. He told them: “It would be a very interesting possibility to explore in order to be able to share the work in return. As a museum that cares about the preservation of these objects, we go through certain formalities regarding an agreement, purchases and exhibition. You know, security conditions and things like that.

In subsequent correspondence, assurances were given of the White Cube installation and insurance plans, but the VMFA said it was initially unable to respond positively as the statue was already on loan. According to chain correspondence, the museum then said in October 2021 that it was too early to make decisions about a 2023 loan.

A VMFA spokesperson added in a statement that decisions regarding the sculpture’s loan were not possible last year because the White Cube building, which opened in 2017, “was not completed”.

Inside the White Cube gallery in Lusanga.  A snapshot from the Plantations and Museums series.
Inside the White Cube gallery in Lusanga. A snapshot from the Plantations and Museums series. Photography: © Plantations and Museums. Human activities, 2021

Tamasala said bringing the statue back, even if only on loan, was an important way for locals to reconnect with their past.

He said: “The lost object, the Balot sculpture, was made for the main purpose of controlling the spirit of dead Balot, which might wander and harm the Pende or their surroundings. Currently, what role does she ?

A picture of the Balot sculpture in a book.
A picture of the Balot sculpture in a book. Photo: Plantations and Museums. Human activities, 2021

“It is objectified and classified or imprisoned – a sterile museum with so many items looted from Africa, with no other purpose than to make money or educate their own people.

“We have the strong impression that they are not ready to lend it to us; it can be loaned to a museum in Switzerland or elsewhere, but not to a plantation museum for the resistance against which, among other things, it was designed and sculpted.

About Mitchel McMillan

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