Row about Congolese statue loan escalates into legal battle over NFTs

Gallery at site of uprising against colonial rule accuses US museum of stonewalling request for artefact

A statue depicting the angry spirit of a Belgian officer beheaded during an uprising in Congo in 1931 is at the centre of a tug of war between a US museum and a Congolese gallery at the site of the rebellion.

The statue of Maximilien Balot, a colonial administrator, has travelled to Europe but the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is accused of stonewalling requests for a loan to the White Cube gallery in Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The row has developed into a legal dispute after the White Cube sought to raise funds by selling digital images of the Balot statue – known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs – resulting in accusations from the VMFA of a breach of copyright.

A spokesman for the VMFA in Richmond, Virginia, said the “image was lifted directly from the museum’s website without permission, which “violates our open access policy and is unacceptable and unprofessional”.

Renzo Martens, a Dutch artist and director at the White Cube, said: “We have downloaded the image from the internet, as there is no other material made available by the VMFA. We do not have copyright for the image, we use it under the doctrine of fair use.”

The artist Renzo Martens.
The artist Renzo Martens. Photograph: Aled Llywelyn/Athena Pictures/Athena

It was during a revolt against the rape of the wives of men who had refused to work at a palm nut plantation in Lusanga that Balot was hacked to death.

The brutal Belgian retaliation that followed led to the revolt of the Pende people, one of the last significant rebellions against colonial rule before independence was secured three decades later. A statue was carved of Balot’s angry spirit in an effort to control it, experts say.

Diviner’s Figure representing Maximilien Balot, 1931 Pende culture.
Diviner’s Figure representing Maximilien Balot, 1931 Pende culture. Photograph: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The statue was purchased in 1972 by Herbert Weiss, an emeritus professor at City University of New York while he was on a field trip near Lusanga, formerly known as Leverville after William Lever, the founder of Unilever. Weiss donated it to the VMFA.

The row highlights the tensions between western institutions displaying artefacts dating from the colonial era and the countries from where artistic and cultural works were taken.

A still from the series Plantations and Museums by Renzo Martens and CATPC: Cedart Tamasala drawing Balot in the White Cube.
A still from the documentary series Plantations and Museums by Renzo Martens and CATPC: Cedart Tamasala drawing Balot in the White Cube. Photograph: Plantations and Museums. Human Activities, 2021

The VMFA has 300 employees and an annual revenue of $21.3m (£15.6m), while the White Cube was established by former plantation workers and is supported by fund raising by a cooperative of artists known as Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC).

Cedart Tamasala and Matthieu Kasama, two representatives of the CATPC, visited the VMFA in February 2020 where they first asked for a loan of the statue.

The CATPC’s Matthieu Kasiama in a still from from Plantations and Museums.
The CATPC’s Matthieu Kasiama in a still from the Plantations and Museums series. Photograph: Plantations and Museums. Human Activities, 2021

A documentary-maker travelling with the two men caught the response from their guide, Prof Richard Woodward, a former curator of African art. He told them: “That would be a very interesting possibility to explore to be able to share the work back. As a museum that cares for the preservation of these objects we go through certain formalities about an agreement and shopping and display. You know, conditions of security and things like that.”

In subsequent correspondence, assurances were given over the White Cube facility and insurance plans but the VMFA said it was initially unable to positively respond as the statue was already out on loan. According to the chain correspondence, the museum then said in October 2021 that it was too early to make decisions about a loan for 2023.

A spokesperson for the VMFA added in a statement that decisions over loaning the sculpture had not been possible last year as the White Cube building, inaugurated in 2017, “was not complete”.

Inside the White Cube gallery in Lusanga. A still from the Plantations and Museums series.
Inside the White Cube gallery in Lusanga. A still from the Plantations and Museums series. Photograph: © Plantations and Museums. Human Activities, 2021

Tamasala said bringing back the statue even if only for a loan was an important way for locals to reconnect with their past.

He said: “The lost item, the Balot sculpture, was made for the main purpose, to control the spirit of dead Balot, which could wander and harm the Pende or their surroundings. Currently, what role does she play?

An image of the Balot sculpture in a book.
An image of the Balot sculpture in a book. Photograph: Plantations and Museums. Human Activities, 2021

“It is objectified and classified or imprisoned – a sterile museum with so many objects looted in Africa, with no other purpose than to make money or educate their own population.

“We have the strong impression that they are not ready to lend it to us; it can be lent to a museum in Switzerland or elsewhere, but not to a museum in the plantation for the resistance against which, among other things, it was designed and sculpted.”


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Giant statue of Roman emperor reunited with long-lost finger
Bronze finger found at Louvre is remounted on to Constantine’s hand at museum in Rome

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

29, Apr, 2021 @1:09 PM

Article image
Digital Benin project reunites bronzes looted by British soldiers
Comprehensive database of Benin bronzes held by museums raises questions about where they belong

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

10, Nov, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Getty Museum to send stolen terracotta statues back to Italy
Along with Orpheus and the Sirens, four other relics are also likely to be returned to Rome from US

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

12, Aug, 2022 @12:52 PM

Article image
India asks Oxford museum to return 'stolen' bronze statue
Ashmolean receives request for restitution of 15th-century idol of Saint Tirumankai Alvar

David Batty

21, Feb, 2020 @1:28 PM

Article image
Too rude for Paris? 'Copulating' sculpture causes stir in French capital
Dutch artist says it is not sexual, but Louvre decided giant sculpture of human appearing to copulate with an animal was too rude to be displayed

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

18, Oct, 2017 @3:26 PM

Article image
Guggenheim Bilbao asks for €100,000 to restore Jeff Koons’ Puppy
Museum launches crowdfunding campaign to repair structure of US artist’s 12.4-metre west highland terrier

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

12, Jul, 2021 @12:28 PM

Article image
British Museum enters world of NFTs with digital Hokusai postcards
Partnership with new platform LaCollection aims to inspire next generation of art collectors

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

24, Sep, 2021 @12:30 PM

Article image
Lalanne sculptures auction to pay for Paris museum extension
Proceeds of sale of rarely seen art works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne to go to Musée d’Orsay

Kim Willsher in Paris

27, Apr, 2022 @11:05 AM

Article image
India to break record for world's largest statue … twice
Sardar Patel statue to stand 182m tall, then be surpassed in 2021 by Shivaji memorial

Michael Safi

14, Sep, 2018 @7:46 AM

Article image
Crypto tycoons help drive global art market to record levels in 2021
Newly wealthy and pent-up demand from Covid-hit 2020 among reasons as sales of sought-after works boom

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

02, Jan, 2022 @3:00 PM