Enjoy Poverty, Episode III

Imayna Caceres

Summary: A decolonial take on the responsibility of artists, how an artwork can be differentially read according to the contexts and positionalities in which it is historically embedded; using as a point of departure contemporary decolonial theory and its political empowernment of transmodern subjectivities.

Who owns poverty? This is the question with which Renzo Martens opens the film and that allows to defetishize the emotional value of Congo to reveal one of its several lucrative exports: poverty. Photographed, filmed, documented, poverty, those who 'provide' it as well as those who benefit from it. The Dutch artist Renzo Martens, having spent two years filming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, brings up the hidden side of Western narrative about the suffering of Africa: the role of Western aid and the consumption of poverty at a level of emotional enjoyment.

In postcolonial spaces any attempt to build a complex historical narrative must take into account the relationships that connect the stories of the colonies with their colonizers. The Democratic Republic of Congo was deeply impacted by the Belgian domain between 1885 and 1960. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State in 1885 in the context of the Berlin conference and managed it, without having ever visited it, as a private company until his death in 1908. Anticipating the ways in which neo-colonialism will continue to operate, Leopold uses the slang of development and employs equipment of scientific innovation and discovery, while making political deals under the table to institute an extractive system of profitable resources. During this period, Congo was the subject of a systematic exploitation of its natural resources, especially ivory and rubber, for which Congolese labour was used in conditions of slavery and where the colonial administration established a system of terror, based on mutilation and murder, to maintain control over the population.

From 1900 on, European and U.S. media report about the conditions in which the native population of the territory lives. The outrage portrayed in several reports and literature is not directed to the colonial system itself, but against the excesses in the way it is being applied. Diplomatic maneuvers and the pressure of public opinion got the Belgian king to renounce his personal control over the Congo, which went on to become a colony of Belgium in 1908, under the name of Belgian Congo. This second term will be key to maintain the axes of world power, through the seizure of strategic minerals such as uranium used in the construction of the first atomic bomb via the Manhattan Project. With a Catholic party in power in Brussels and large companies represented in the colonial policy, the second Belgian regime in the Congo was based on the alliance of the state with the Catholic Church and big corporations; consolidating a system of economic exploitation, political repression and cultural oppression. An important point to consider in connection with what Renzo Martens denounces in Enjoy Poverty, is that the wealth produced in the region that is reinvested in Congo, was mainly spent in the operating system by the alliance of church, trade and state.

This is the historical context in which the criticism of Martens should be read. In this context, the film can be divided into: the revealing of humanitarian aid as a neoliberal enterprise, the cynical emancipatory program to help the poor to benefit from poverty as their main resource —whose more problematic aspect is the reproduction of exploitation, and the staging of the art project as such.

Martens begins the film acting out colonial film scenes without additional tools to interpret his intervention as criticism. A neon sign, packed in metal boxes is carried through the jungle by Congolese porters. Afterwards, in an intervention to a diplomatic body in the middle of a conference, Martens presents the thesis of his art film where he argues that among the riches that the West obtains from Africa, poverty itself can also be found. The misery that is portrayed in photographs and documentaries, the poverty that is used by NGOs and international missions in order to style their image and to obtain grants.

The camera then sets out to criticize agricultural plantation owners who exploit their staff, the United Nations Mission in the Congo, the representatives of the World Bank, diplomats and businessmen, Doctors Without Borders workers, locally involved NGOs, journalists covering the conflict. The film challenges the documentaries who want to capture with their cameras the "reality" of Congo without involving their subject in the process, enriching themselves with images like others enriched with coltan or gold. It brings out the manipulatory and simplistic discourses between good and evil, and the role of saviour and saved. Enjoy Poverty places people in the position of spectators of the abyssal poverty of others, and the ensuing catharsis it provokes.

Confronted with this situation, Martens launches its supposedly emancipatory program where the objective is to end the expropriation of poverty, by circumventing the intermediary. From that idea, the Dutch director travels along Congo with a neon sign which reads "Enjoy poverty" that has been intentionally produced in English even though is not a commonly understood language in the villages he chooses to visit, engaging and seeking to persuade people they have to find ways to take advantage of their poverty and make profit from it. In a sequence he convinces local photographers that usually dedicate to portray weddings, birthdays and celebrations, to abandon their business in order to engage in photographing malnourished children and poor women, under the idea that they are much more profitable than moments of happiness. The lectures on the profit of poverty, are followed by fieldwork and finally its application to a job with Doctors Without Borders, in which the emancipatory program is revealed as a failure.

Despite of this, Martens manipulates the situation into a celebration and a party, where people that has identified Martens as involved in the problems of survival of the community accepts the idea. When one of the residents asks what it says on the neon sign, Martens proceeds to explain that it is in English because that is the language of the art world, and is made to be seen and enjoyed by people from outside. In the film, the criticism that the artist receives about his work is portrayed as hypocritical and although the hypocrisy is true, the emancipatory program that Martens brings to Congo continues to be problematic and ethically reprehensible. This is so since in this whole charade and cynical mise en scène, the exploitation that the artwork reveals is replicated in order to make the denounce as an artist valid, because without this, it would only be a documentary.

The character of Martens, the artist concerned by social causes, reproduces and benefits from the situation he is looking to report. As white, European, Dutch, man, and artist, Martens has all the tags that guarantee a free pass to a number of situations. It guarantees the power relations in which he can move, the type of questions that he has the ability to pose, the abuses that he can challenge and recreate.

Those that take part in Martens theater are not informed of what his ultimate intentions are and, being in total economic misery, they doubt themselves when attempting to challenge the artist. One particular scene depicts this situation: having brought a plate of food to a worker who has trusted Martens and denounced his company and exposed the miseries of his life and that of their children, Martens then proceeds to sew the logo of United Nations to the dress of the worker's daughter while she is still eating. When the worker asks Martens to explain what is he doing and why, Martens doesn't pay attention to him. An attitude that served the artist to denounce and expose different positions that benefit from the system of enjoyment of poverty, when dealing with those that are subject to this exploitation, ends up repeating the exploitation and converting it into oppression. This is the most problematic aspect of the film.

Can the artwork be above the cause that motivates it? Is it more relevant that the situation it seeks to expose? Even if it is to make a critique of political art, or to denounce itself, people in real situations of exploitation should not be used as props, or material for a moral discourse.

Consequent interviews to Martens seem to make clear that this is not an aspect that he has sought to reflect on. There is no criticism to aspects of the film that did not work and therefore deserve to be criticized. If Enjoy Poverty exposes the viewer to decide to stay fully as a spectator in the position to enjoy of the poverty of others, nothing justifies the abuse of power carried out in the name of art, not even the complaint itself to that abuse.

Renzo Martens, born in 1973, studied art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and Political Science at the University of Nijmegen. In 2010 he held a residency at ISCP in New York. Beneficiary of the Yale World Fellow, he is currently doing his PhD in the School of Arts, Ghent. His film Episode III: Enjoy poverty was exhibited among other places: Berlin Biennial (2010), Göteborgs Konsthall (2011), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2010), the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven (2011), the Kunsthaus Graz (2010), Apexart New York (2010), Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam (2010) and Hallen, Haarlem (2009). In the Berlin Biennale 2012, Martens launched the Institute of human activities in the Congo. In 2013, in collaboration with the New Institute, his work is displayed in places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, WIELS in Brussels and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

- Interviews to Martens
- http://renzomartens.com/biography
- Wikipedia: Biography of Renzo Martens
- Inti Films website of the film

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