Renzo Martens and The institute for Human Activities – Artes Mundi 6 – Cardiff

Posted: November 19, 2014 in Musings, Subversives in Art
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I wanted to blog about an exhibition I went to earlier that has been troubling me, as an MA student in Art & Philosophy I visited Artes Mundi 6 at National Museum of Wales, Cardiff today and felt unease at what I personally perceived as an exploitation art installation by a white Belgian artist Renzo Martens, the work is called “The Institute for Human Activities”.

As with the other Artist’s work in the exhibition I first spent time looking, investigating, making my own mind up on each piece in the display. Noting my first impressions, where I perceived it to be an NGO intervention/a third world charity project/indigenous art installation and so on. With a commercial aspect where a chocolate self portrait head was offered on sale for £39.95

I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of Chocolatiere’s in European cities selling African chocolate heads for white European consumers?

Even before reading the accompanying exhibition panel, I began to feel uncomfortable at what I perceived to be a commercial activity that had associations with Tate and Unilever and also feelings of post colonialism  in certain aspects on show. The primitive artworks had similarities to the ones that Picasso and the cubists copied from in the early 1920s, they too had controversial historical baggage.

He’s previously made a controversial piece in the former Belgian Congo called “Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty” where he visited ruined areas and encouraged cocoa plantation workers and locals to monetize their poverty and misery (variously by staging photographs of extreme illness, and so on) to in turn exploit the West’s desire for chocolate and the Lacanian desire on a psychological level (la manqué) to be seen to be “giving to a worthy cause” the themes were deeply troubling to me on several levels but what stood out was one sentence in an accompanying blurb…

“his films focus on one observation: Poverty is Africa’s biggest export, and as with other natural resources, it is there to be endlessly exploited by the Western World through media.”

Martens lectures locals about poverty as a commodity and encourages them to photograph starvation and death themselves rather than Western photojournalists profiting from humanitarian disaster.

The reason I’m commenting is an article I saw here

And I decided to add my own comment:

“even before seeing this I had deep personal concerns about the motives of the whole Band Aid 30 and the Ebola theme, which out of the entire continents of Africa, effects just three west coast countries. To me the whole thing seems to be an exercise in commodifying suffering for the Spectacle of an X-Factor audience and is equivalent to poverty p0rn.”

 * Update I’ve posted this blog item on 16th Feb 2015!

To Do

Artist and Exhibition appreciation and critique.

(This list is a personal guide only.)
Artist Name: RENZO MARTENS; Date of birth: Biography.


Dutch artist Renzo Martens lives and works in Brussels and Kinshasa and is known for his satirical and disturbing video documentaries in which he travels to war-torn countries and places himself narcissistically at the centre of the action, demonstrating how Western spectators consume distant trauma.

In 2012, Martens helped found the Institute for Human Activities and initiated its five-year Gentrification Program.

By means of strategic inversion Martens comments on the ways in which Western media depict the non-Western world.

In his first film ‘Episode 1’ the artist infiltrates, alone and with a small amateur camera, the Chechen borders, where he visits refugee camps, UN headquarters and the bombed city of Grozny.

As Western audience we are accustomed to view these images of war and conflict in daily news broadcasts and TV programs. However, in contrast to our expectations, Martens is not so much interested in the people’s sorrow, rather in himself and his personal love story. Instead of asking the refugee’s how they are feeling, he asks them: ‘what do you think of me?’ And: ‘do you think I am free?’

In ‘Episode 3’ Martens travels to the ruined Congo, interviewing photographers, plantation owners and locals; he acts the role of journalist, colonist, modern day missionary and development aid worker.

His film focuses on one observation: poverty is Africa’s biggest export product, and, as with other natural resources of the Congo, it is exploited by the West through media. Lecturing locals assertively on ideas of poverty as commodity, he encourages them to sell their own photographs of starvation and death, not let Western photojournalists profit from their humanitarian disaster.


Appreciation of painting to include following eight points:

Title/ date/ media/ collection or museum…

The subject of the artwork (e.g. whether it is a landscape/ portrait/ still life/ urban/ abstract etc.)

The compositional elements of the artwork (e.g. what is included in the painting in the foreground/ background/ middle distance.)

The technique or style: (e.g. you may want to use adjectives to describe the painting technique such as: loose brushwork/ spontaneous/ direct/ lively/ vibrant/ sketchy/ impasto/ energetic/ thinly painted/ thickly painted/ layers of colour/ washes of colour/ controlled or detailed brushwork/ highly finished/ photographic quality/ impressionistic/ expressionistic/ cubist/ surrealistic, etc.)

The larger, primitive style sculptures were produced by the plantation workers and made from traditional clay methods. The models were laser scanned and moods were produced. A mixture of chocolate is then poured into the molds and the chocolate sculptures produced from the molds. The head sculptures were made in the same way. They are self portrait models.

Although made of chocolate all the chocolate sculptures are marked “not for Human consumption”.

Use of colour (e.g. bright primary/ dark monochrome/ subdued/ intense/ subtle/ use of chiaroscuro/ pastel/ contrasting/ harsh/ pale/ etc.)

Overall feeling or mood of the artwork  (e.g. happy/ quiet/ tranquil/ peaceful/ romantic/ sad/ tragic/ emotional/ disturbing/ real/ humorous/ moody/ inspiring/ offensive/ etc.)

Content, meaning or message of the artwork – what I think the artist has set out to convey(e.g. a painting of everyday life/ a love of colour and landscape/ a comment on time and place/ a political statement/ a humorous statement/ a personal emotional response/ a story or narrative/ a symbolic representation/ an abstraction from the subject, etc.).


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