The art exploring the truth about how climate change began

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Precious Adesina (BBC) reviews the exhibition “We Are History: Race, Colonialism and Climate Change,” on view at Somerset House, London, until February 6, 2022. [Also see previous post We Are History.]

A new art exhibition offers a fuller, more rounded view of humanity’s impact on the Earth – by tracing its link with colonialism. Precious Adesina talks to the artists.

It has been more than three decades since climate change became front-page news. In 1988, The New York Times ran an article titled “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate”. Ever since, discussions on the crisis have predominantly focused on how the state of the world has been affected by humans since the Industrial Revolution in the West – and with good reason. The Earth’s temperature has increased by 0.07C every decade since the late 19th Century, a rise that has been linked to the mass burning of fossil fuels. Yet a new exhibition of work by various artists suggests that we must look further back in time and analyse the issue from a non-Western perspective in order to get a fuller picture of the current emergency.

The group show We Are History: Race, Colonialism and Climate Change opened to coincide with 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at London’s Somerset House. Through the lens of 11 artists who have a personal relationship with the Caribbean, South America and Africa, the exhibition looks not only at the roots of global warming, but also at how it impacts the developing world. By looking back, the link between the world’s environmental issues, colonialism and slavery is highlighted. Also explored is how these problems still have a disproportionately negative impact on certain countries. A study released in 2020, published by two archaeologists, revealed how colonisation forced residents in Caribbean communities to move away from traditional and resilient ways of building homes to more modern but less suitable ways. These habitats have proved to be more difficult to maintain, with the materials needed for upkeep not locally available, and the buildings easily overwhelmed by hurricanes, putting people at greater risk during natural disasters. 

Among the exhibits is Barbadian-Scottish artist Alberta Whittle’s film from the forest to the concrete (to the forest), 2019, which directly explores this topic, documenting the effects of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. The 10-minute-long film is stamped with the date 09.09.19, nine days after the disaster. “Africa produces 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the whole continent, but yet it is so at the front line,” Whittle told culture magazine The Skinny. The artist wants people in the UK to see the disparity between their own comfort and the relative lack of comfort of their non-Western counterparts. She intertwines a number of performances with footage of destruction. “[There was] a terrible hurricane that moved through the Bahamas last week,” she said at the time of its premiere. “But what I see in the weather in the news in the UK, is ‘Oh isn’t this wonderful, we are about to go through a period of sunshine’.”

Similarly, British filmmaker Louis Henderson focuses on how the West is primarily responsible for the disruptions to the natural world that humans have caused in his almost 30-minute long video The Sea is History, 2016. Henderson adapts the poem of the same name by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. In his poem, Walcott discusses the effects of colonisation on a community’s culture, and claims that the history of these places is hidden in the sea. The footage in Henderson’s piece features mesmerising shots of Lake Enriquillo, a lake in the Dominican Republic that often floods due to rises in sea temperature. [. . .]

Hidden history

Much like Whittle and Henderson, the collaborative duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla explore how outsiders have impacted the Caribbean, but they take a different approach. Their screen-printing method for the series Contracts uses layers of black ink to taint the beautiful scenery they depict. “What seem to be conventional pictures of a beautiful destination are disrupted by a layer of a single colour ink, shrouding the idyll partly or completely,” say the duo. “We live and work in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that, since the colonial period, has been systematically exploited for its natural resources… As climate change makes weather events more severe, from droughts to hurricanes, the already vulnerable island is put in an even more heightened state of precariousness.” [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20211020-the-art-exploring-the-truth-about-how-climate-change-began

[Shown above: Artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla explore climate impact (Credit: Courtesy of the artist/ Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris/ Sebastiano Pellion di Persano).]

Also see more about the exhibition at https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/we-are-history

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