NFTs, art repatriation and the VMFA: How a local museum ended up in the middle of an international controversy –

Posted By on February 28, 2022

A battle over a Congolese statue owned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has thrust the local museum into the international spotlight.

The item in question is a wooden statue of Maximilien Balot that is currently on display in the African art galleries at the VMFA.

Balot was an abusive Belgian colonizer who was murdered in an uprising in the Congo in 1931. Later, a sculpture of the European oppressor was carved in wood by a native artist, to contain and control the Belgians spirit, in accordance with the beliefs of the Pende people. The VMFA purchased the Balot sculpture from collector Herbert F. Weiss in March 2015 for $25,000.

An art museum in the Congo called the White Cube has accused the VMFA of stonewalling requests for a loan of the Balot sculpture, an object it says belongs to the Congolese people.

After 18 months of trying to obtain the Balot statue on loan with no success, the White Cube decided to go a different route.

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Last month, , the White Cube decided to mint digital images of the Balot statue known as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs and sell them to raise funds and buy back land in Congo. A group associated with the museum, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League -- also known as CATPC -- describes this as "digital restitution."

We received a letter from the director of the VMFA stating that the requested loan was regrettably not possible, without any opening as to when it would be possible," said Cedart Tamasala, part of the group. "This is when CATPC decided to investigate alternative opportunities to get back the power of the sculpture.

To create the NFT, the White Cube took an image of Balot from the VMFAs website without the VMFAs permission.

The Virginia Museum of Arts open-access policy specifically applies only to non-commercial use. The image used to create the NFT was lifted directly from VMFAs website without the museums permission and is being used for commercial purposes, Jan Hatchette, a spokesperson for the VMFA, said via email. Its use for financial gain as an NFT violates our open access policy. It is both unacceptable and unprofessional.

The controversy between the VMFA and the White Cube has already been written about in The Guardian, a daily British newspaper, and, an art market website.

"This has become a big issue in the art world over the past several years," said Amy L. Rector, an associate professor of anthropology at VCU. "We're seeing this at Western art museums that own art as a result of colonization. It's leading to bigger conversations such as, whose art is it? Who should own it? Who should benefit from it? And who should get to make those decisions?"

The White Cube is a small 1,290-square foot museum built in the town of Lusanga in Congo. Its construction was finished in 2019, with final stages of climate control and security completed in April 2021.

It looks exactly like its name: a white, angular cube located in the middle of an abandoned plantation.

The White Cube was established by CATPC, a cooperative of plantation workers, along with the help of the Dutch artist Renzo Martens, who helped secure funding for the White Cube building, which was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas firm OMA.

The idea behind the White Cube is part of a masterplan conceived to support a new art economic model that includes local Congolese labourers in arts creation and profit sharing, according to the museums website.

Martens most recent collaboration with the White Cube is a series of six short documentaries that tell the story of the White Cube, the artists in CATPC and their connection to the Balot sculpture. The documentaries can be viewed on Martens website for the Institute for Human Activities.

We built our own museum. Inside, its still empty, Tamasala, one of the artists of CATPC, says in the documentary. Right now, theres one specific sculpture we need. It has to come back. Its the sculpture our ancestors made of Balot.

Tamasala said that the White Cube wanted to bring the Balot statue back to the Congo to rekindle our relation with our heritage, and retrieve the powers that are contained in the sculpture.

In February 2020, Tamasala and fellow artist Matthieu Kasiama traveled to the VMFA, where they met with Richard Woodward, the founding curator of VMFAs African art collection. In the documentary, Tamasala and Kasiama asked if the statue could be loaned to the White Cube.

That would be a very interesting possibility to explore to be able to share the work back, said Woodward. As a museum that cares for the preservation of these objects we go through certain formalities about an agreement and shipping and display. You know, conditions of security and things like that.

The VMFA said Woodward was retired at the time of the interview.

According to the VMFA, a formal loan request for the statue from the Institute for Human Activities , where Martens is artistic director, was received on March 19, 2021.

At that time, the White Cube building was not yet complete and the VMFA could not commit to lend the sculpture, Hatchette said.

CATPC said it requested the sculpture from the VMFA for 18 months, to no avail.

The group said that's when it decided to create an NFT of the Balot sculpture.

CATPC describes minting the Balot sculpture as an NFT as one of the first global instances of digital restitution. The Balot NFT will put digital ownership of culture back into the hands of the many and helps buy back land once stolen and exhausted In a radical new model of restitution, blockchain-based NFT technology becomes a tool for decolonization.

The group plans to put 300 Balot NFTs on the market later this year. The goal is to use the funds to buy back land on the former Unilever plantation where they live and where the White Cube is located.

They have already bought back around 100 hectares of land once controlled by Unilever, according to ArtNet.

Buyers [of the NFT] get a digital rendering of the sculpture, based on photographic reproduction from the VMFAs website, it says on the Institute for Human Activities website. Every purchase helps to ultimately unleash the powers of the sculpture and make it work for the community: sales directly buy back land and [provide] autonomy and food security for plantation workers in one of the most impoverished areas of the world.

This gesture is a bit of a renegade, do-it-yourself attitude. If the VMFA wasnt going to loan the statue, CATPC decided to create its own version of the statue via a series of NFTs.

Indeed, a handful of museums are entering the blockchain space and minting NFTs as a mode of fundraising and monetizing digital collections, such as The British Museum and the Uffizi Gallery in Italy.

According to the IHA website, 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.

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."

We believe it is fair use for us to download the image from the VMFA website, Tamasala said via email. This image is the only way to get access to a sculpture that intellectually and artistically belongs to our community.

The controversy puts the VMFA in an uncomfortable position in the media spotlight, particularly for a museum that has publicly said that it intends to be one of the top three museums in the world for African American art.

The Guardian noted that the controversy highlights tensions between Western art museums displaying artifacts from the colonial era and the countries from where the works were taken.

"In my opinion, the answer from the VMFA should have been, 'Of course we will get this statue back to you. Let's work on the best way to do that,'" VCU's Rector said. "But hidden in those discussions is the way that Western art museums maintain this colonial perspective of, 'We're not going to give it to you until your facility is as secure as we want it to be,' or, 'You haven't given us enough information for a loan.' To me, that's the responsibility of an art museum. To make sure that those who are tied to this piece of artwork and who find meaning in it can get access to it."

The VMFA said that they never received actual loan dates from White Cube, which was still under construction when the museum first contacted the VMFA and "could not provide a facilities report that met museum standards."

The VMFA added that the "NFT had to have been planned for some time, at least as early as November 2021. This shows bad faith on their part since we were in regular email contact for almost two years."

The VMFA said it no longer intends to loan the Balot sculpture for exhibition at the White Cube gallery "because unfortunately, the minting of the NFT has broken all trust between VMFA and the exhibition organizers," Hatchette said.

We are sad ... that the museum qualifies us as 'unprofessional' and that the VMFA director no longer intends to loan the work to CATPC for an exhibition at White Cube," Tamasala said via email.

We could turn this around. Is it professional for the director of the VMFA to not even be interested in having a professional conversation about cultural heritage with the source community? Is it professional to not seriously answer a loan request? Tamasala asked.

While the Balot sculpture is currently on view at the VMFA in the African art galleries, it will be on loan to the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, N.C., from Aug. 1 of this year until Aug. 1, 2023.

The VMFA has been in the middle of similar conflicts before.

In 2018, the VMFA returned a painting -- Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Sebastian, -- that had been stolen by the Nazis, to its original Jewish owners.

Since The Guardian and Artnet articles were published, the VMFA has said that it is conducting more research into the Balot sculpture. We are currently in the process of working with various partners to ensure that this matter is handled appropriately, a spokesperson said.

VMFA takes seriously, and responds to, all restitution claims for works in our collection. We have not received a claim from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Balot sculpture, a spokesperson for the VMFA said.

Tamasala said his group's stance is unchanging.

"The sculpture was made to resist forced labor. We still need the sculpture," he said. "If the VMFA says it no longer intends a loan request, one may question whether the VMFA has the skills and knowledge to conserve this sculpture at all.

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NFTs, art repatriation and the VMFA: How a local museum ended up in the middle of an international controversy -

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