Introduction of the catalogue ‘The International celebration of Blasphemy and the Sacred’

Eelco van der Lingen, director Mondriaan Fund in fornt of an installation by Ischa Kempka. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn.

The Dutch entry for the 60th edition of La Biennale di Venezia is provided by artist collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) together with artist Renzo Martens and curator Hicham Khalidi. The exhibition at the Dutch Pavilion in the Giardini is twinned with a presentation at the White Cube in Lusanga (DRC) and is part of CATPC’s ongoing commitment to reclaim land to reintroduce biodiversity, regenerate the soil and provide sustenance for the community in Congo. An accompanying publication is available for sale.

Read the catalogue introduction by Eelco van der Lingen, director of the Mondriaan Fund, below.


The catalogue The International Celebration of Blasphemy and the Sacred  (in both English and French) includes a main text written by curator Hicham Khalidi and a series of letters written by Ced’art Tamasala on behalf of CATPC. Khalidi wrote his text in close collaboration with writer Amanda Sarroff, CATPC and Renzo Martens and draws on interviews with renowned authors and curators such as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Ruba Katrib and Ndubuisi C. Ezeluomba. The publication also includes an introduction by Mondriaan Fund director Eelco van der Lingen and contains extensive visual documentation of both the sculptures and video works in the Dutch pavilion in Venice as well as the sculptures in Lusanga. Price: € 29,95

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“La Biennale di Venezia is a major event in the international visual arts calendar, perhaps even the most important one. It reveals what many people in the arts consider relevant or pressing now: which trends, stories or movements are worthy of our attention. This makes it a benchmark for future visual art. In the years following the Biennale, museums from all around the world will often programme those contributions that stood out the most. The curators involved upgrade their CVs and galleries raise the prices of the artists who participated.  

This time around, the theme of La Biennale di Venezia is Foreigners Everywhere, in reference to an artistic protest against the xenophobic tendencies in Italy at the beginning of this century. Accord-ing to curator Adriano Pedrosa, the focus will be on artists who are foreigners — immigrants, people from diasporic communities, refugees, outcasts — with an emphasis on those who have moved or relocated from below the equa-tor to above it. 

The Biennale’s progressive agenda, with its focus on injustice and inequality in the world, contrasts sharply with how the Biennale is set up as a platform. It is a window display of inequality and conflicting interests. All the wealthy countries have pavilions, and those belonging to the countries once considered ‘the most important’ are situated in the Giardini. Here, they showcase their most noteworthy artists, most of whom hold a passport from the country they are representing. 

For the previous edition, we moved out of the Giardini and handed the Rietveld Pavilion over to Estonia. As it turned out, it was actually not too bad being further away from the Arsenale and Giardini. Those who were willing to travel to the little medieval church Chiesetta della Misericordia and laid down on Théo Demans’s cushions, usually took the time to watch melanie bonajo’s forty-five-minute film in its entirety. Whereas in the hustle and bustle of the Giardini this probably would not have happened that often. We left the power politics of the Giardini behind us; however, this single move away from the Biennale’s historical centre obviously did not change the inequality embedded in the fabric of the Biennale. And even if all national pavilions were to offer a platform to artists from diasporic communities, to refugees, immigrants or outcasts, this still would not cause a dramatic shift in the Biennale’s own systemic issues. 

The opening week is still mostly attended by a privileged audience. Decadence is never far off. This is not just evident from the expensive yachts at the quay, the excessive parties or the security staff who keep unwanted guests out, but also from the trainers worn by the trendy curators or the expensive outfits sported by artists whose work is bought by the global one percent, only to be stored away in freeports for tax purposes.  

Does this mean that the Kingdom of the Netherlands should no longer participate? No: for the simple reason that La Biennale di Venezia is not the only place where good intentions and questionable characteristics coincide; it is unfortunately something that is inherent to our existence and to humanity. Although the Biennale’s inequality may be inescapable, it does offer us an opportunity to examine our own position in all this. The friction resulting from characteristics that seemingly contradict one another allows us to test and polish up our own morality. That makes it meaningful and worthwhile. 

For this edition, the Dutch Pavilion is taken over by the Congolese collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC). The members of CATPC are not ‘foreigners’ as defined by Adriano Pedrosa. They are not moving or fleeing, and do not want to emigrate to somewhere north of the equator. On the contrary, they wouldn’t dream of it. Their main concern is the recovery of their own soil, which has been tarnished by centuries of colonization and exploitation. They have no desire for the privileges of the affluent North. Instead, they are searching for balance in their own privilege. 

The International Celebration of Blasphemy and the Sacred, CATPC, Renzo Martens, Hicham Khalidi, 2024. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.

CATPC is appearing in the Dutch Pavilion thanks to artist Renzo Martens and curator Hicham Khalidi. Martens’s artistic practice stood at the basis of CATPC. It took him to Lusanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he studied the relationship between the proceeds of multinationals in the colonial era and beyond, the exploitation of the local landscape and population and the manner in which some museums were originally funded. His film White Cube (2020) shows how this quest led to the formation and practice of CATPC and the establishment of Lusanga’s own art institution called White Cube. 

Good intentions and questionable characteristics are also present in Martens’s oeuvre and inequality is a recurring theme that is at the heart of his practice. Accompanied by Hicham Khalidi, and in dialogue with the members of CAPTC, the Kingdom of the Netherland’s submission for La Biennale di Venezia consists of a quest for a new balance. A balance that offers CATPC a framework for shaping its own narrative and paving its own way, with Martens as supporter instead of instigator. It is a quest that probes a history and context of endless inequality. Therefore, this endeavour may not be easy, but it is certainly meaningful and of value; to CATPC, to Martens and Khalidi, to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and to the audience. 

Part of the quest for balance and recovery is CATPC’S request for a loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, VA, US), concerning the temporary return of the so-called Balot sculpture to Congo. This sculpture was originally made for the purpose of capturing the evil spirit of the Belgian colonial administrator Maximilien Balot, who was killed during an uprising in 1931 against the Belgian colonizers and the Anglo-Dutch plantation owners. For the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the sculpture may be an interesting ethnographical object to be preserved and studied. To the members of CATPC however, the sculpture is not meant to be studied, but to be used. It is a sculpture with a spiritual function and in order to fulfil that function it will have to make the journey back to Congo. 

The position held by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is similar to that of many ethno- graphical museums around the world, where sculptures are being preserved and exhibited to give the public, museum professionals  and scientists an opportunity to learn from them. But here, too, inequality is ingrained in good intentions. Many objects are sitting  in protective display cases, detached from their original function. They were not made  to be displayed in glass cases, inaccessible to the populations by whom and for whom the objects were made. 

Thanks to the Biennale, Balot can now travel back to Congo. This means that this quest for balance is no longer solely of great importance to CATPC, Martens, Khalidi and the Kingdom of the Netherlands itself: out of a context of inequality arises a valuable experience for an even larger audience. It can thus contribute to a new balance for all and provide a great benchmark for the future of visual art and ethnographic collections.”

Eelco van der Lingen,
Director, Mondriaan Fund