Somewhere in a decentralised, virtual realm lives a newly minted non-fungible token (NFT), featuring a virtual rendering of a sculpture crafted in 1931 by Congo’s Pende people. Suspended somewhere between fantasy and reality, the image rotates counterclockwise against a black background, revealing a new dimension with every turn.
In the physical world, the deeply spiritual sculpture has been out of its source community’s reach for years. It is made of wood and represents a history of rebellion for the Pende people, according to Renzo Martens, a Danish curator who helped create the NFT.
The project was led by the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC), an artist collective that lives and works on a plantation owned by the MNC Unilever in Lusanga, Congo.
Featuring meticulously carved downcast eyes and a rigid stance, the statue depicts Maximilien Balot, a Belgian colonial agent sent to brutally conscript members of the Pende community to work as unpaid labourers at a subsidiary owned by modern day Unilever. After Balot was slain in a fight with a Pende man in 1931, the Pende people created the sculpture to capture and control his spirit as an aid in their fight against Belgian colonial rule.
The sculpture first changed hands in 1972, when it was purchased for around $120 by tribal arts collector and City University of New York professor Herbert Weiss on a trip to Congo. Weiss later sold it to the Virgina Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), where it is still on display today.
The idea to turn the statue into an NFT emerged in 2020 after an unsuccessful attempt by artists Mathieu Kasiama and Cedart Tamasala to formally loan it.
The process was recorded in a documentary called Plantations and Museums, which tracked the CAPTC’s attempt to repossess the Balot sculpture to display temporarily at the White Cube, a community art gallery on the plantation.
But when the artists explained their desire to borrow the statue for temporary display to the VMFA’s head curator, they were met with ambivalence. “You’ve raised a very interesting suggestion,” the curator answered. A year and a half later, the VMFA sent the collective a letter formally denying their request, stating that the White Cube was not suited to display the piece.
The pathway to NFT-fueled repatriation moved much faster than the team’s back and forth with the museum. The CAPTC deployed the help of a photographer, who shot original photos of the sculpture, and a group of Berlin-based artists, who arranged them, to create the Balot NFT.
The digital repatriation was completed without permission from the VMFA. The museum criticised the group’s creative rendering of the piece as “unacceptable and unprofessional” and claiming that “its use for financial gain” violated the museum’s open-access policy.
But Marten says it’s all fair use. “The only thing we took from the museum is its images and photographs — it’s simply an image of sculpture,” he said.
Each time an NFT is created or exchanged, it is recorded on an unalterable ledger via the blockchain. So, when an artist mints an NFT, they permanently enmesh themselves in the digital chain of creation. Their role in its construction cannot be erased. In this way, an NFT can become “a tool for decolonialisation,” said Martens.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle