Balot NFT

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise — CATPC (CD)

The Balot NFT puts digital ownership of culture into the hands of the many and helps buy back land once stolen. In a radical new model of restitution, NFT technology becomes a tool for decolonization.

While museums in the Global North are using NFTs to take their privatization of art objects even further, into the digital realm, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise in French, ‘CATPC’ for short) gears this technology towards re-collectivizing art. For 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. The NFT was minted to reclaim the power of an important symbol of colonial resistance to the Pende people: the Balot sculpture.

The Balot sculpture was carved in 1931, during a Pende uprising against atrocities carried out by the Unilever plantation system and Belgian colonial agents. After years of enforced recruitment to work on plantations where they were required to produce enormous quantities of goods at low prices, the rape of Kafuchi—the wife of Pende chief Mafuta—is what sparked the Pende Revolt. When a colonial administrator for the Belgian government, Maximilien Balot, came to the village of Kilamba to collect the ‘native tax’, he found the Pende rebelling. Balot fired into the crowd, injuring chief Mafuta's nephew. In response, the enraged crowd swarmed Balot. Shakindungu was identified as the person responsible for Balot's killing, during which Balot was decapitated and dismembered. The Belgian army’s reprisal was swift and violent. During the months of the revolt, the Pende carved a sculpture representing Balot, intended as a power object to harness his angry spirit in service of the community.

The sculpture remained hidden until 1972, when it was sold to an American scholar who later sold it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia, where it is now part of the collection. Beginning in 2020, CATPC has made multiple loan requests to exhibit the sculpture in the White Cube, the museum that CATPC has built on a former Unilever plantation. As part of their research into the history of the Pende Revolt and the Balot sculpture for the video series Plantations and Museums (2021), two members of CATPC, Ced’art Tamasala and Matthieu Kasiama, also travelled to the VMFA and asked for a loan. Not having received any concrete responses from the VMFA, CATPC decided to investigate alternative ways to claim the power of the sculpture.

NFT technology offers CATPC a window of opportunity to claim digital ownership over 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 museums in faraway countries. 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. Meanwhile, impoverishment on the plantations from which these artworks originate is rampant. It is 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 labor and culture. With the Balot NFT, CATPC works to draft best practice models of action for this, using blockchain technology to claim back what is theirs: not just art, but land.

As a result, CATPC downloaded photographic reproductions of the sculpture from the VMFA's website and turned it into an NFT (non-fungible token): a digital rendering of the Balot sculpture hovering over a fragment of a drawing by Ced'art Tamasala. The drawing maps out global value flows of capital, commodities, and cultural exploitation, and exhibits how the Balot sculpture was carved to resist these unequal power relations and its disastrous consequences for the community. With its sales, CATPC buys back plantation land depleted from 100 years of monoculture to restore the sacred forest of their ancestors. Each NFT is sold for the price of one hectare of land in Lusanga. Every purchase helps to unleash the powers of the sculpture and reassert its original purpose of protecting the community and land.

In 2024, CATPC succeeded in securing a temporary loan of the Balot sculpture to exhibit in the White Cube in Lusanga (DRC) as a part of providing the Dutch entry for La Biennale di Venezia 2024. The sculpture is on display at the White Cube and simultaneously connected through a livestream at the Rietveld Pavilion in Venice (IT) from 20 April to 24 November 2024. CATPC believes the return of the sculpture will restore balance and correct past injustices—now is the time for museums and art institutes throughout the Western world to support reconciliation and actively engage with indigenous communities as they reclaim their land and restore and reconnect to their sacred forests. Both the Balot NFT and the temporary return of the Balot sculpture strengthen CATPC’s movement to restore what is theirs: not just art, but land.

The Balot NFT is created by CATPC and supported by Human Activities. 
Human Activities takes care of the technical, legal, and financial production. 
All sale proceeds and resale royalties, minus gas fees, go to CATPC for the acquisition and restoration of land.

CATPC—in full "Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise" or "Congolese Plantation Workers Art League"—is an art cooperative of plantation workers from Lusanga, DR Congo. It was founded in 2014, together with well-known environmental activist René Ngongo. With the proceeds of their art, CATPC has built a practice of securing hundreds of hectares of former plantation land for future generations. In the midst of this land, they have built a museum: the White Cube. In one of CATPC's recent video works, this white cube is indicted for its involvement in colonialism and forced labor. On this land, they are restoring worker-owned, ecological and inclusive food forests: the Post Plantation. CATPC, artist Renzo Martens and curator Hicham Khalidi provide the Dutch entry for La Biennale di Venezia 2024.

Collective ownership has always been part of the fabric of African cultures and traditionally there have been mechanisms to claim and maintain this ownership and to pass it on from one generation to the next. In some tribes, there may have been one clan from which the medicine men would hail, and even though their in-depth knowledge of indigenous herbs and medicines would only be passed down within the clan, the use of this knowledge would be in the service of the entire community.  

The Balot NFT project is a model for collective ownership—especially that of indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage—in the digital world.

As the prevalence of digital platforms in gaining access to services such as education and healthcare grows, it becomes increasingly urgent that we are all represented on these platforms. Part of representation is ensuring that different languages and belief systems are included and equally valued. While there are now increased efforts in building technology, and specifically artificial intelligence resources such as datasets that are representative of contexts that are typically on the margins, like Africa, these communities approach the digitization of their languages and cultures with great trepidation.  

The question of ownership, and especially the ownership of cultural artifacts, is of great importance for the African continent. One big question for us is, “How can we both digitize our cultures as well as ensure that we can maintain ownership of these artifacts?”

The project is also a new spin on restitution, one that is proactive. CAPTC shows that while we should continue to demand that what is ours be returned to us, we can and perhaps should do more than just wait. They have taken back what is theirs by minting the digital art version, and owning it. Yet this ownership is not the end game, neither is simply amassing monetary wealth. The cost of each individual NFT is priced equivalent to a hectare of land that will be reclaimed with the intention of restoring sacred forests that belonged to the Pende people.

Finally, the fact that the CAPTC collective is based on the African continent, in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be specific, is something that was important for us to highlight and celebrate. The DRC is probably the richest part of the African continent as well as the most exploited and ravaged. This is definitely not “yet another NFT project.”