For decades - if not centuries - people on plantations in Congo and elsewhere have been deprived of their culture and forced into unpaid labor, supporting wealth and art in the global north. In one of the first global instances of digital restitution, The Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC) claims their heritage using the magic powers of NFTs (Non-Fungible Token). The Balot NFT, to be minted on February 11th 2022, will put digital ownership of culture back into the hands of the many and helps buy back land once stolen and exhausted, reintroducing sustainable ways of governance, land use, and community-building. In a radical new model of restitution, blockchain-based NFT technology becomes a tool for decolonization.
The Balot sculpture was carved in 1931, during a Pende uprising against rape and other atrocities carried out by the Unilever plantation system and Belgian colonial agents. The sculpture depicts the angry spirit of beheaded Belgian officer Maximilien Balot, and was carved to control Balot's spirit and make him work for the Pende people. Today, the sculpture is held in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond. Loan requests by CATPC have thus far been futile. So was a personal visit by CATPC in Richmond.
With the Balot NFT, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League uses blockchain technology to claim back what is theirs: not just art, but land. The sculpture will later be atomized in a limited number of original NFTs for sale. Buyers get a digital rendering of the sculpture, based on photographic reproduction from the VMFA's website. Every purchase helps to ultimately unleash the powers of the sculpture and make it work for the community: sales directly buy back land, replant the forest and reintroduce biodiversity, resulting in offsetting carbon emissions and providing autonomy and food security for plantation workers in one of most impoverished areas of the world.
On February 11th, CATPC publicly calls back the powers of the Balot sculpture by minting it as NFT. Later this year, a collection of 300 individual Balot NFTs will go on the market
. The funds will be used to buy back land. Meanwhile, each Balot will live on the blockchain while royalties from resales will go into replanting forests, reintroducing biodiversity, offsetting carbon emissions and providing local food security.
Whats at stake
Despite loaning the statue to institutions such as the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland for an exhibition titled Congo Fiction, the VMFA has as of yet not answered favourably to the loan requests made by CATPC to exhibit it in the White Cube, the museum that CATPC has built on the Unilever plantation.
CATPC intends to use the window of opportunity that is offered by NFT digital ownership to claim lost art and restitute its functions: by using NFTs the powers of these objects can be reclaimed, even if the physical art is held by unwilling museums. However, this window is limited: museums in the global north are already minting digital copies of key works in their collection and selling them as NFTs, creating a new profitable existence of these age-old artworks, while keeping the originals in their collections. Impoverishment on the plantations is rampant: it is now essential that local communities make use of this technology and control the powers of their lost art, rather than the institutions that were built on the exploitation of their labour and culture.
The minting of the Balot NFT will take place online (see humanactivities.org
), at White Cube Lusanga, and at KOW Berlin, on February 11, 17:00 CET, 2022.