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Facing the Fire

On a former palm oil plantation, a community rebuilds

“We must not stay in one place. We must spread out. We must take back all four corners of the Congo.” —Matthieu Kasiama, CATPC

Over the past century, plantations throughout the Global South have funded the construction of many American and European museums and arts institutions. The violence of this system continues today, as rainforests from Brazil to Indonesia are still cut down and turned into plantations, furthering global crises of inequality, as well as biodiversity loss and climate change. Extracted value is invested in cultural institutions in cities like New York and Paris, generating further wealth in the metropoles while leaving depleted landscapes and impoverished people on the plantations themselves.

In Congo, the palm oil plantations of the Lever Brothers—now Unilever—have long financed the Western art world, most recently the Unilever Series at Tate Modern in London. The work of the Congolese Plantation Workers’ Art League, known as CATPC, its French acronym, aims to reverse this dynamic. CATPC makes art, including sculpture, tapestry, and multimedia work, about the vision of the communities on the plantations. This work is created in Lusanga (formerly Leverville), the location of Unilever’s very first plantation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then exhibited throughout the world in collaboration with Human Activities, an art institute founded by Dutch artist Renzo Martens dedicated to facilitating CATPC’s efforts.

With the resulting profits, CATPC has been able to buy back five hundred acres of exhausted plantation land in Lusanga—a Post-Plantation returning land ownership and food security to a community long devastated by poverty. The CATPC has begun reforesting these exhausted lands in an effort to combat the rampant deforestation that values capital over living beings and threatens not only the Congolese but human lives worldwide. The Post-Plantation is a place where both community and nature can thrive.

In 2019, CATPC’s founding members Ced’art Tamasala and Matthieu Kasiama traveled from Lusanga to Kilamba, the village where Belgian colonial officer Maximilien Balot was killed during the 1931 revolt by the Pende people, an ethnic group of the DRC, against years of forced labor and other atrocities on the Lever plantations. Tamasala and Kasiama captured the following images on their way to Kilamba, where they hoped to find more information about a sculpture carved by the Pende in 1931 to stop Balot’s spirit from causing more harm. As they discovered, the sculpture is actually held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.


A photograph of two men dressed in a feathered mask, striped beige and black shirt and pants, with beige dried grass fringe at the wrists, waist, and feet, holding sticks like canes on a dry dirt road.
On the road to Kilamba, the Munganji (men dressed in costume and Pende masks) performed a dance in front of a vehicle before asking the driver for a contribution.


A photo of an empty concrete classroom has two wooden desks with a life-size human skeleton anatomy model in the corner of the room.
A skeleton stared at us from an empty classroom at the University of Pont Lubwe. Many people in the DRC cannot afford higher education. In Lusanga, we started our own educational program, Cercle Luyalu, connecting traditional practices with present-day knowledge.


A photo of a roadside fire burning in a dry field of grass.
This fire on the side of the road reminded us of the slash-and-burn method that is often used to clear forests to make room for monoculture farming, a driving force in the destruction of more than one million acres of forest in the DRC.


A photo of a electric towers includes a danger sign with a skull and crossbones reads “ne pas toucher aux fils meme tombes a terre,” which means “do not touch the wires if they have fallen to the ground.”
The power lines go straight to the international mining corporations. They provide no electricity to the communities that live under them.


A photo of a large room brimming with handmade sculptures, masks, and vases, much made of wood.
In Gungu, a town along the way to Kilamba, we visited the home of Mr. Aristote Lwange Kibala. He is the director of the Pende Secret Arts Museum, which mysteriously burned down in 2021. There were sculptures, masks, and ancient vases, many made from wood, that Mr. Kibala had collected over the years. The objects crammed into this room didn’t survive the blaze.

How do you continue when so much of your culture and land disappears in the flames of commodification? Not only were the objects from Mr. Kibala’s museum lost, but many other Pende art objects as well, kept currently in faraway museums overseas. We, as the CATPC, want to recuperate this knowledge by reconnecting with our ancestors. While we expect for the Global North to send back these works, the only way to do that now is through the land.


A photo of freshly planted tree saplings in a grid of red string.
When we returned home, we started to plant many different species of trees again. Slowly, we are seeing the lost forest being reborn.


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