Artists and designers respond to the relationship between racial injustice and the climate crisis
Organised by Naresh Ramchandani and Do The Green Thing, The Colour of the Climate Crisis is a new exhibition showcasing the work of 24 Black creatives and artists of colour.
As negotiators and climate advisors continue to hash out the details of deals and promises at Cop26 in Glasgow, it’s important to remember that the effects of the climate crisis do not, and will not, fall equally on everyone. The richest one per cent of the world’s population causes twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50 per cent; that same 50 per cent – around 3.5 billion people – lives overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change. In short, they are bearing the brunt of a crisis they did not create.
The Colour of the Climate Crisis is a new exhibition exploring this inequality and the connections between climate breakdown and racial injustice. “It’s communities around the world, largely Black communities and communities of colour, in the Global South, who are suffering the worst of the climate crisis that they largely didn’t cause,” says Naresh Ramchandani, a partner at Pentagram and the co-founder of Do The Green Thing, which has organised the exhibition. “Even in the Global North,” he continues, “lower-lying areas around the coasts and areas with worse air pollution index quite heavily against Black communities and communities of colour.”
In 2019, Do The Green Thing put on an exhibition called Man-Made Disaster showcasing the work of 30 women artists and non-binary artists, which looked at the links between climate change and the patriarchy. Following the success of that project, Naresh says this year, “It felt like a good moment to think a little bit more systematically again.” The project began with an essay, written by the journalist and activist Minnie Rahman, published back in February, which laid out the horrific inequalities related to the impacts of climate change. Naresh and his team then reached out to a number of artists and designers of colour, and asked if they’d be interested in contributing an artwork that speaks to this overarching theme.
The result is a highly diverse collection of work by 24 artists and designers of colour, ranging across a variety of different disciplines, from fine art to photography to illustration and graphic design. “As a team, we’re interested in the range of responses,” says Naresh. “Some of them are much more focused on the problem, and are disappointed or critical, like Mona Chalabi’s response; others are angrier, like Eddie Opara’s; and others are a little bit more hopeful, like Abeer Seikaly’s work. And there’s a whole range of emotions in between.”
Earlier this week, to coincide with the start of the Cop26 summit, Do The Green Thing launched a pop-up exhibition of the artworks at Pipe Factory in Glasgow. “It was stunning and it had a real polemic power to it,” says Naresh. There was also something deceptively alluring about the pure beauty of the work, which allowed the hard-hitting message behind it to land (something Mona Chalabi explains in more detail below). “There’s something beguiling about aesthetics that gets you to step towards the work and think about it more deeply,” Naresh explains. “When we put the works up in the space [at Pipe Factory], I almost hadn’t realised how beautiful it all was.”
Although the pop-up exhibition in Glasgow has been dismantled, The Colour of the Climate Crisis is going to live on in various forms. There is a digital exhibition, where you can see all of the artists’ work in a virtual gallery, and the team is currently in talks to bring the exhibition to a Lush store in Liverpool, to the Glasgow School of Art, to London, and even to the Climate Museum in New York. As Naresh puts it: “The relationship between racial justice and the climate crisis is such an ongoing conversation. It needs to be explored and refreshed and renewed.” To follow where the exhibition goes next and to see all of the artworks in a digital gallery, head over to the project’s website.
Wilfred is an interdisciplinary artist working between the UK, France and Nigeria who has contributed a mixed-media artwork to the exhibition called Alas, My Thirst Lumbers to the Sea for Our Saline Zone is Barren with Crude. Created in 2017 as part of a series, the staged photographs address historical and contemporary socio-environmental issues in the impoverished yet oil-rich Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, Wilfred’s birthplace.
“I was particularly interested in exploring methodologies in social sculpture, socially engaged art, and contemporary art practice as a strategy to investigate and respond to the pressing needs and challenges of the Niger Delta context. It became imperative to engage talented youths in marginalised oil-producing communities using transdisciplinary creativity and vision as tools for social empowerment, while addressing the environmental devastations in those communities. The art-photographic project shown in this exhibition featured those participants engaged as active subjects and ‘agents of change’ in their own right. Eventually, the project emerged out of workshops that combined skills development with research and creative interventions.
“Certainly, they were created years ago, yet they were shown to the public for the first time during my participation at the 2020 Fotofest Biennale in Houston. For me, it is still a fresh body of work that resonates even more intensely today with race and climate crisis issues that have become overwhelmingly troubling. It almost seems visionary and prophetic that it aligns strongly with the topical issues of our precarious times.”
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Tre Seals: Save Your Breath (Copyright © Tre Seals, 2021)
The data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi created a new work for this exhibition: Extract. Exploit. Emit. The artwork was inspired by an old imperial map she found during her research. “It was such a beautiful image, but that was its danger,” she says, “because oppression can be presented in aesthetically pleasing ways.” Like all her work, this piece is informed by data. And like all her work, Mona humanises that data, here surrounding the frame with plants, animals and human characters who embody the facts of climate change and make it impossible to ignore the white supremacist neo-imperialism that created it.
“As I do with every single brief, I started by just finding out what is the existing visual language around this topic, and one of the first results was this old map of the British Empire. It was beautiful and disgusting and gross. It’s amazing. You can buy those maps on Etsy for £25. And I understand why someone would want to have that framed because there is an aesthetic beauty to it, but it’s also glorifying the oppression of people of colour, and basically depicting it as something that was great and something we’re all on board for. So I wanted to play with that imagery.
“Existing cartography is inherently racist. The classic World Map that places Britain at the centre is flawed and it’s also not even accurate if you look at the scale and the way maps distort country sizes. My piece is partly a critique of other forms of cartography. And then, when I was looking into the actual data about which country to put front and centre, it was a real toss-up between the UAE and the USA. But if you look at the list of corporations that are the biggest offenders, more US companies appear on the list than other countries.
“I feel like, especially when it comes to climate change, but all negative subjects, people create work that’s deliberately ugly. So, I could imagine someone creating something out of debris and trash. It makes a point, but for me, if you want to look away from a piece of artwork, it has failed in some respect. The goal is that everything should be visually pleasing. Even stuff that is horrific and is delivering the message about its horror should win you over with a nice fragrance.”
Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark
Rayvenn is a self-taught digital sculptor, writer, researcher and curator living and working in London. Her practice explores the digital hybridity of sculpture, exploring the nuances of identity that pivot between hyper-visibility and invisibility. Her contribution to the exhibition, an untitled work from 2019, takes its inspiration from renaissance figurative monumentalism and serves to centre Black bodies at the heart of the climate conversation.
“I really appreciated the openness of the brief, it wasn’t trying to guide you in any way. And when you go into the brief, it looks at the climate crisis from a few different angles. So I think my position and the way I got involved in this showcase was looking at the climate crisis and the idea of power politics and the hierarchy, particularly around Black and white bodies within the climate crisis. So that was the way my lenticular could enter the conversation, because my discourse, more generally, looks at the collectivisation of bodies and Black bodies online in particular. It was nice that, even though the climate crisis isn’t the biggest part of my practice, there were still inroads for me to be involved.”
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Hamed Maiye: Untitled (life under the smog) (Copyright © Hamed Maiye, 2021)
Ayo Fagbemi & Friends
Ayo is a London-based strategist, who worked together with a group of activists and designers on a collection of protest posters. As he puts it: “We wanted to showcase the talent of a variety of different activists and designers, presenting the power their voices have when working together. This project looks to revise a historical problem that often negates the voices of people of colour out of the climate conversation. With our pieces we look to centre them, putting them and their diverse missions to the front in their own unique way.”
“When we spoke on this issue with the Fridays For Future campaign with the UKSCN, I was extremely proud of the work. At the time a friend Ghadir Mustafa mentioned to me, in a conversation at On Road (the research agency run by Tarik Fontenelle and Taro Shimada) that she felt there were not enough people of colour in the campaign. This really stuck with me, and made me really research the adverse effects the climate crisis has on people of colour all over the world. For myself it was important to revise this story both in my own personal work, as well as more importantly revising the centring of white voices in the climate conversation. Putting a spotlight on the amazing designers we have in our community, as well as activists who are changing the narrative. In a sense the approach was and always is to facilitate connections to create important messages.
“This is one of the most important issues of our future. Yet in order to paint and create a better future, we must remember and right the wrongs of the past. All our designers and activists state this message loud and clear, and we hope people are encouraged to have their own voices heard, act in their own way and most importantly pressure those in power at a time like this for Cop26 to make the right decisions for the future of our planet.”
Farida is an Egyptian illustrator, whose work explores culture, representation, identity and diasporas, influenced by her childhood and adolescence spanning Cairo, Dubai and London. Her contribution, The Nubian Story, discusses the underrepresentation of the Nubian people – a Black ethnic group in Egypt and Sudan that has been displaced for 50 years. Farida used social media accounts dedicated to preserving Nubian culture, language and traditions to inform her piece, as well as audio narratives by two Nubian women, Maram Mahmoud and Najla Salih, to tell their own stories of Nubia from ancient times until today.
“In recent years, I have been focusing on the ongoing battle of the representation of unheard voices of our society through my readings and work. I have been learning and educating myself on the impact of colonialism on Arab, Asian and African societies, and became especially interested in the Eurocentric beauty standards and consequent colourism that exists in those societies. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a lot of conversation on a global scale and even reached the young people of Egypt. I began looking at the treatment and underrepresentation of Black Egyptians, which led me to learn that the Nubian people, a Black ethnic group in Egypt and Sudan, have been displaced for 50 years now due to environmental factors. I realised that even though I knew about their culture through film and music I grew up with, I knew very little about their ancient history and story. Most importantly, the project stemmed from the general lack of global as well as domestic knowledge on the discrimination and displacement that occurred to Nubians.
“Through the illustrations, video, and podcast, I hope that the viewer would be captivated by the vibrant Nubian culture while understanding and empathising with the struggles that Nubian people go through. When reaching out to the Nubian community, and listening to my collaborators, many subjects spoke about the underrepresentation, how they felt unheard and unseen even in their own country. I realised the best way to bring about empathy and hopefully, change, for Nubians, is by raising awareness and highlighting their history, culture and struggle. For instance, dance and music are a vital part of the Nubian culture and identity, with its symbolism to the Nile, a significant landmark to Egyptians and Africans.”
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Fabio Setti: Tamarados Santos, Raiz do Mundo (Copyright © Fabio Setti, 2021)
The full line-up of artists who took part in The Colour of the Climate Crisis is: Francis Augusto, Pimchanok Chaiphet, Mona Chalabi, Román Serra Cisneros, Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, Farida Eltigi, Ayo Fagbemi & Friends, Shyama Golden, Hamed Maiye, MUSH Studio, Tanya Noushka Ramsurrun, Selina Nwulu, Eddie Opara, Rogers Ouma, Hannah Phang, Tré Seals, Abeer Seikaly, Fábio Setti and Tamara dos Santos, Ngadi Smart, Jacqui J. Sze, Rebekah Ubuntu, Wilfred Ukpong, and Wong Ka Ying.
Response & Responsibility – Cop26
During the next two weeks, over 120 world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to agree on the actions needed to pull the earth back from the brink of a climate catastrophe. The most important conference of our lifetime, in response, we are exploring creative responses to the climate crisis throughout the duration of Cop26.