The Institute for Human Activities

The Institute

In 2012, the Institute for Human Activities (IHA), a foundation established in the Netherlands, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo, began ‘A Gentrification Program’ on a former Unilever plantation, 800 kilometers from Kinshasa, on a tributary of the Congo River.

The Institute organized its opening seminar on a clearing next to this plantation. For two days, art historians such as TJ Demos, activists such as René Ngongo, and artists including Botalatala gathered to map out the terms for the IHA’s five year program. The keynote speaker was urban theorist Richard Florida, who elaborated on his much contested thesis of art as a vector for economic growth.


René Ngongo and Renzo Martens in Conversation with Richard Florida. Institute for Human Activities, 2012

With the Unilever Series, in Tate Modern, Unilever continued its long history of stimulating the arts by financing a series of seminal artistic interventions. The Unilever Series became one of contemporary art’s signature events, Tate Modern emerged as the most visited art gallery in the world and London as one of the world’s art capitals. Unilever, with its headquarters across the River Thames, could hardly have made a better investment.

The IHA asserts that even when art critically engages with global inequalities, it most often brings beauty, jobs, and opportunity to the places where such art is exhibited, discussed and sold – London, Venice, New York and Berlin.

The IHA started its Gentrification Program to counteract this. It hopes for the workers on the plantation to accumulate capital through critical art production, to join a more lucrative post-Fordist economy. When Unilever sold its Congolese plantations in 2009, most of its plantation workers had no access to clean water, electricity, sanitary installations, or a salary above 1 USD per day.

In the summer of 2013 Unilever’s successor, the Canadian company Feronia, blocked public roads, reneged on lease contracts and destroyed the IHA‘s settlement. Artworks in which children of plantation workers expressed their vision for the future were confiscated. The IHA was forced to leave its settlement and the communities with whom it had been working.


Feronia taking away Children's Art Works. Institute for Human Activities, 2013

The IHA has relocated to an undisclosed location in Congo.

In response to the eviction, activist René Ngongo presided over the inaugural meeting of the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League. Gathering members from cocoa and palm oil plantations in various parts of the country, the League aims to remunerate the contribution its members make to the world, beyond barely paid labour. This meeting has taken place in a structure designed by NYC-based artist Liam Gillick.


Impression of CPWAL Inaugural Meeting in a structure designed by Liam Gillick. Institute for Human Activities, 2014

The IHA is a joint research project at Yale University, University College Ghent, and the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne.

Current Exhibitions

The Institute for Human Activities was selected to participate in the 6th edition of the Artes Mundi biennial in Cardiff, Wales (24.10.2014 – 22.02.2015). The IHA is thus nominated for the Artes Mundi award, Britain’s biggest international contemporary art prize. The winner will be announced on January 22, 2015 during an awards ceremony in Cardiff.

From November 22 February 22 the Institute for Human Activities is part of the exhibition Confessions of the Imperfect, curated by Alistair Hudson at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The title ‘Confessions of the Imperfect’refers to the romantic art critic and social reformer John Ruskin.

At its upcoming exhibitions, the IHA will show a series of sculptures. Coinciding with the inaugural meeting of the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, plantation workers such as Djonga Bismar, Mbuku Kipala, and others embarked on the production of elaborate self-portraits.


Jan Willem of the Dutch Pastry Team contemplating the Work of Mbuku Kipala. Institute for Human Activities, 2014

From IHA’s settlement in exile, these sculptures have been scanned and digitally exported to Europe. IHA printed 3D versions, which were used to create molds used by the award-winning Dutch Pastry Team to cast these self-portraits in the very cocoa that League members have produced for global markets for the last century.


Visitor of Artes Mundi thinking of buying a Chocolate Sculpture. Institute for Human Activities, 2014

At Artes Mundi and the Van Abbemuseum, their chocolates will be for sale,– but with added content: feelings, ideas, convictions. For the very first time, the sculptures will generate revenue for Congolese plantation workers through a more lucrative post-Fordist, affective economy. As these plantation workers cannot live off plantation labour, they will now live off artistic engagement with plantation labour.

The self-portraits are made possible by Barry Callebaut, the leading Franco-Belgian chocolate producer.