“Extractavism” is a term coined to designate economies based on the massive extraction of resources for export—a feature of both the colonial and post-colonial eras of the Congo. Extractavism, its marks and its erasures, are persistent themes in the work of the Kongo Astronauts.
In King Leopold’s quest to extract rubber from the Congo, his notoriously brutal agents terrorized, mutilated, and murdered local populations. After King Leopold’s overthrow, in 1911, the Belgian government struck a partnership with Lever Brothers (later Unilver) for the extraction of the palm oil needed to make Sunlight soap and other projects. Lever Brothers’ headquarters and main manufacturing plants, near Liverpool, were located in a model city called Port Sunlight. In an attempt at enlightened, progressive capitalism, Port Sunlight’s workers had neat rows of suburban houses, schools and health care, structured leisure activities, and internal rules to promote an ideal society built on middle-class values. The joint challenge to transport this model to the Congo and there to gain access to unlimited supplies of palm oil led to the establishment of the town Leverville, at the confluence of the Kwenge and Kwilu rivers.
But the incentives intended to attract workers to Leverville were inadequate, the costs of infrastructure and extraction were too high to be profitable, and the project faltered from the beginning, tempting recruiters to revert to coercive tactics that harked back to King Leopold’s time. The attempt at a tropical utopia born from the coupling of colonialism and capitalism failed; Leverville as a product of “moral capitalism” that approached “social work” gave way to what is today known as Lusanga, abandoned buildings, ruined factories, encroaching jungle, nostalgia and hope. Still, the moral challenge at the heart of the project remains pressing in the Congo and throughout the globe: what forms of labor, of extraction, and of government might maximize social benefit.
These ethical and economic questions, as well as both the history and the current patterns of extractavism, are at the forefront of Kongo Astronauts’ performances and photographic works at this location, Lusanga, formerly Leverville. As Éléonore Hellio of Kongo Astronauts says, “The issue of extractivism is at the heart of our concerns; extractivism operates as much on humans as it does on nature.” From 50 billion euros of raw material extracted from the Congo, the Congolese people receive in return 50 million tons of waste electronic equipment, from which their astronaut suit is constructed, an exoskeleton that shields him from an environment rendered toxic and on which he must rely to breath. Ironically, this golden suit performer is dressed in electronic waste that symbolizes the exploitation of Congo’s resources by foreign powers and extractivism’s lasting impact on the environment and population. The astronaut has been dispossessed and alienated, he must rely on the exoskeleton of his armor to breathe in an atmosphere rendered toxic. Ironically, his golden suit shines bright in the dark nights of the cities of the Congo, which are subject to continual blackouts and power cuts.