“... and the importance of critique”: ‘Humanitarian’ Discourse and Restitutive Practice in Renzo Martens’ 'White Cube' (working title)

Jakob Claus , Lisa Deml

Palavras-chave: Renzo Martens; White Cube; humanitarian art; critique; decolonization

Participação: presencial

The film 'White Cube' (2020) by Renzo Martens dissects the supposed distance between New York and Lusanga and maps the relations between contemporary art and the extraction of raw materials in the Global South, between the white cube and the plantation. To this end, Martens invites a group of former workers on palm oil plantations in Lusanga, DRC, to create sculptures that are reproduced in chocolate through 3D printing to be exhibited and sold on the Western art market. The profit thus generated enables the Congolese workers to repurchase farmland and establish an autonomous agricultural economy. Martens not only seeks to expose the bifurcation of art and colonialism but to reconfigure it in emancipatory terms.

'White Cube' is the latest sequel to a series of controversial projects (i.e., 'Episode III: Enjoy Poverty' (2008)) in which Renzo Martens questions his position as a western artist and the premises for an ethical artistic practice. Through his own persona, he attempts to confront moral, historical, and economic complicity in the continuous colonial violence and to productively engage this self- referential critique in the name of restitutive cooperation. The ambiguity between his neocolonial and self-legitimising performance on the one hand, and decolonial and collaborative practice on the other, is a conceptual component of his work—and at issue in our paper.

Our close reading of the film reveals that our critical methods ultimately appropriate colonial guilt discursively, thereby extending imperial and neoliberal power structures rather than subverting them. Taking 'White Cube' as a starting point, this paper problematises the ways in which political claims tend to be co-opted by activist art projects and socially-engaged forms of critique to be dissolved within consensual cultural spaces. From a place of discomfort and doubt, we aim to think through the positions and feelings solicited by such ‘humanitarian’ discourses in order to discuss how we can develop a critique of colonial violence in light of our own entanglement in it.

Liberal societies are sustained by an uneven distribution of pain between those who suffer and those who are solicited to redress that suffering. The expressions and appeals of empathy, sympathy, and compassion offered by, to evoke Asma Abbas’ term, humanitarian art forms thus confirm, rather than challenge, this uneven distribution of suffering. Hence, the plight of others is not a mere object of representation, but the very material condition that makes such aesthetic forms possible. Crucially, this assertion should not relativise colonial suffering but prompt us to reconsider our relationships of affective and material intimacy with colonial violence.

For this collaborative paper, Renzo Marten’s 'White Cube' serves as a means to interrogate our own positions within the visual sensorium that makes such patterns of viewing and structures of feeling possible. Neither a technical film analysis nor a synthesis of moral contradictions, we unfold and examine the ethical controversies and paradoxes inherent in practices of image production and reception in de/colonial contexts. How can we transcend the self-referential humanitarian discourse and develop responsive and restitutive practices?


Asma Abbas, Liberalism and Human Suffering: Materialist Reflections on Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics (Basingstoke / New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
T.J. Demos, ‘Gentrification After Institutional Critique: On Renzo Martens’s Institute for Human Activities,’ in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Vol. 40 (2015), pp. 76-89.
Anthony Downey (ed.), Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).
Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019).


Jakob Claus is a research associate at the Institute for Art and Visual Culture at Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg. He studied cultural and media studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, Goldsmiths College in London, and Leuphana University Lüneburg, and wrote his degree on decolonial and ecological genealogies of the Anthropocene. He is a founding member of the theory collective texture. Currently he is pursuing a PhD project investigating media- constellations of situated knowledge production in 20th century ethnology.

Lisa Deml is a Midlands4Cities funded doctoral researcher at Birmingham City University. She holds degrees in Art History and Philosophy from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the Ludwig- Maximilians-University, Munich. Initially trained as a journalist, she subsequently worked for public cultural institutions and non-profit organisations internationally, including Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. Her research interests focus on visual articulations of citizenship, particularly in the framework of documentary and new media practices in the Middle East and North Africa.