A Museum Refuses To Return A Looted Statue, So The Locals Made It An NFT. Who Owns It Now?

In our most recent WAC Weekly, we discussed the Balot NFT project, using the NFT as a tool for decolonizing museums, and what it means for the primacy of on-chain art vs. its physical counterpart.

The Balot NFT reclaims a looted artifact

In February, across two locations — the White Cube gallery in Lusanga (Congo) and KOW in Berlin (Germany) — the Congolese Plantation Workers Arts League (CATPC) minted an NFT. As a piece of activism, it set off a discussion around western museums’ continued possession and display of looted colonial artifacts. As a work of art, it calls into question the relationship between the NFT and the physical artwork, and what “ownership” really means in that contested territory.

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The NFT depicts a 1931 sculpture of Maximilien Balot, a Belgian colonial officer who was sent to put down an uprising of the Pende people against the occupying Belgians and their atrocities in the area. Balot was killed after shooting into a crowd, and afterwards, the sculpture was carved as a kind of activism: to capture Balot’s angry spirit and make him work on behalf of the people.

Today, like thousands of other artifacts looted from Africa, the Balot sculpture is displayed in the west. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the USA has previously loaned the Balot to museums like the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, but refused to loan the sculpture to CAPTC’s White Cube gallery in Lusanga, let alone repatriate the stolen work entirely. The CAPTC’s efforts to get the work back were documented in a six-part video series here.

So the CAPTC took images of the sculpture, assembled them into a 3D representation and minted the work as an NFT, claiming they have on-chain ownership in a way the museum doesn’t. As the CAPTC writes:

“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. 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.”

The legal dispute from the museum arrived when the artists declared their intentions for the NFT. In June, at Art Basel, the collective intends to sell 300 editions whose proceeds and resales will go towards buying land around Lusanga for planting food and protecting biodiversity. In this way, the spirit of Balot will once again be put to work for the people of the former colony.

What issues does this present?

This is the first time the NFT has been used as a tool for decolonial activism, but this isn’t the first time digital reproduction has been used as a critique. Iranian artist Moreshin Allahyari has previously spoken on what she calls “digital colonialism”, writing “in the past years, I have specifically focused on these colonial powers in relation to technologies such as 3D printers and 3d scanners and their use/misuse in the construction of in danger or lost artifacts and cultural heritage of the Middle-East.” In a mirror image of the Balot piece, the sites and artifacts are scanned with LiDAR and the data is taken back to the western institution for safekeeping.

For Balot, it’s the community that has taken control of the digital reproduction rather than the museum. With the added blockchain aspect they’re staking a claim to ownership in a way that hasn’t been possible before; the previous generation of internet media had an ethos of non-ownership, which you could argue is either optimistic or naïve compared to the Web3 model.

On this, dslcollection’s Sylvain Levy says that what’s happening to art with the NFT is what has happened to music, books, and films in the wake of the internet: “We are experiencing a kind of desacralization of art … we are slowly going towards a new type of model where the object by itself will not be fundamental. What will be fundamental is how it will be used. Slowly and slowly, Web3 will in a certain way desacralize the notion of what’s an object of art.”

Ottavia Palomba points out how CAPTC are creating history and narrative around the NFT version of Balot, whereas the object in the museum remains inert. This NFT is the first many people will have heard of Balot, the museum object is just a bit of context around the main piece. When/if the NFTs are sold, the projects in Lusanga funded by the initial sale and resales will create even more history and value around the NFT for years to come.

Will we see more of this in the future?

CAPTC aren’t the only ones trying to use Web3 in the context of decolonization. With BronzeDAO emerging to try to accelerate the repatriation of thousands of Benin bronzes, it’s possible we’ll see even more of these efforts being made in the short- or long-term future. Decolonization is the kind of headline-grabbing mission — much like “we are going to buy the constitution” — that DAOs and NFT projects have become good at raising funds and attention around.

And in a future where the NFT collection becomes a way of expressing one’s tastes and ideas, it’s easy to imagine people collecting these NFTs, social tokens, or POAPs to say “I support this cause and these projects”. Collecting art, as Levy points out, has always been about putting together a “posture”, assembling a point of view; when dslcollection acquires political works by Chinese artists, that’s unavoidable.

But for now, when what “ownership” on the blockchain really means is still disputable, it could be little more than a symbolic gesture. In more ways than one: “tokenism”. Unless the world really moved to value the on-chain asset above the physical object, you could argue that the blockchain offers little in the way of real power. On the other hand, consider the fallout if it was a museum offering to “repatriate” an NFT of the looted object while keeping the real thing to themselves.

What Web3 might offer here is collective ownership and governance. Today there’s almost no legal recognition of the DAO as a legal entity, which is why ConstitutionDAO had to put one founder in charge of collecting and owning the document in the event they won it in the auction. But that could change in the future, and even now smart contracts and multisig wallets enable collective governance with or without legal recognition.

After he was killed in 1931, Maximilien Balot was dismembered and distributed amongst the chiefs of the Pende to keep as trophies. Later, even his spirit was captured and put to work for the collective. After they sell the 300 NFTs of his statue, it’s not clear how CAPTC will distribute the Balot proceeds or how they’ll govern the projects that are funded in Lusanga. But whatever happens, it’s not the fact of on-chain authenticity that will matter.

If Web3 tools have any role to play in a decolonization effort — permissioned or permissionless — it’s in the potential to put work into the hands of self-governing collectives who can give its value back to the communities who created the work in the first place.

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WAC Weekly is part of WAC Lab, a new program unleashing the full potential of Web3 for the arts and culture produced by We Are Museums in collaboration with TZ Connect and Blockchain Art Directory, and powered by the Tezos ecosystem.

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All insights published here come from weekly open discussion. It is collective intelligence at its best to think about a Web3 future for the arts and culture.