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New exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art explores global economic inequality

25 January 2016
for website carasel

Jérémie Mabiala making The Art Collector at the Institute for Human Activities, undisclosed location, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2015

One of our most treasured luxuries, chocolate, is made by the labour of some of the most underpaid workers on the planet – this issue, along with the fight for equality by a plantation workers’ union, regeneration, community survival and the commissioning and funding of art, forms the latest exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima).

After a transformative year, mima continues to grow as a civic intuition, promoting a vision of art as a tool for social change. This new show addresses the exploitation of poverty by Western companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in this instance, cocoa.

Opening on 6 February, this co-production between Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs des Plantations Congolaises (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League) and the Institute of Human Activities (IHA),  features a number of sculptural self-portraits produced by subsistence farmers and plantation workers from the IHA settlement in a rainforest 800 miles from DRC’s capital, Kinshasa.

Originally moulded from a tributary of the Congo River’s clay and then 3D printed and cast in chocolate, the sculptures tell the story of a partnership between the IHA and members from the cocoa and palm oil plantations across the country.

Lacking the resources to break free from a purely extractive economy, workers can barely provide for their livelihoods from the income they earn and lack basic infrastructure such as clean water, electricity, adequate sanitation facilities.

Making these self-portraits allows plantation workers, who cannot live off production employment, to carve a living from artistic engagement with plantation labour, creating a local free zone for critical thought and artistic production that in turn has a positive impact on the livelihoods of local inhabitants.

Where a pound of cocoa beans usually represents a value of approximately US $0.25 to these plantation workers, who earn monthly wages of around US $20, the same pound of cocoa vastly increases in value if the chocolate made out of it is inscribed into the art market.

mima Director Alistair Hudson said: “Works made at the IHA have previously been presented under their founder’s name, Dutch artist Renzo Martens. However, while still under the supervision of Martens, this is the first time that the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League present their work on a stand-alone basis.

“It seems right that an Institute of Modern Art such as mima should now acknowledge the vital role these communities and cultures have played in shaping our modern society, as well as the injustices that have been carried out in our development. As a civic institution we have a role to play in integrating exhibitions and community-focused initiatives so it’s fitting to host such a relevant exhibition at mima by a settlement who are putting the profits of their workers by profits back into the locale.”

Martens and the IHA recognise that art highlights vast global inequalities, with profits in the main going to regions where art is exhibited, debated and sold – mostly Western art capitals such as London, New York, Paris and Berlin – rather than these problem areas in other parts of the world. When art does engage with these global inequalities, the IHA proclaims that it’s often in the advancement of jobs and opportunity.

The display at mima includes ten works and a public resource area. Comprising a table designed and produced by Unto This Last, a London-based alternative design and furniture maker; reproductions of the Arne Jacobsen’s Butterfly chair; and an iMac computer. The resource area will act as a public space through which visitors can access and digest information related to the Institute for Human Activities.

mima Senior Curator Miguel Amado said: “This exhibition is not just about aesthetics, it is about ethics. Formerly these plantation workers were lacking the resources to break free from an activity that extracted almost everything and gave little back. However, creating these pieces allows them to carve a living from art which enables them, to some extent, to redistribute capitalist forces to their advantage.”

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