Race, Colonialism, and the Climate Crisis
What Artists and Designers Can Do
Ekow Eshun interviewed by Amanda Pinatih
What Artists and Designers Can Do
Ekow Eshun interviewed by Amanda Pinatih
Amanda Pinatih: I started working at the museum roughly two years ago. And, together with Ingeborg de Roode, curator of industrial design, I actually almost directly pitched the idea of an exhibition about what design can do to counteract climate change. It was clear from the start that we wanted to make an exhibition that focusses on materiality, because a lot of designers are currently looking into alternative materials. Many of them are working from the knowledge that several resources are depleting, and that they are not going to be around forever. So, instead of only creating design for their own bubble, they’re setting an example when it comes to environmental responsibility. We see this as a movement, not a moment. Also, we really wanted to make an exhibition that showcases design practices from all around the world. To show this is not something that we’re just thinking about in the Netherlands, or in western Europe.
The exhibition you just made in Somerset House, We Are History, has inspired us in thinking through the interrelations between race, colonialism, and climate change. Could you tell me more about what you consider to be the origins of the climate emergency? Particularly the notion that part of the roots of today’s climate crisis lay in colonialism?
Ekow Eshun (EE): I put together the exhibition because I wanted to interrogate some of the ways in which we think about the climate crisis. One of the singular ways we do that, is through the idea of the Anthropocene. The thing with the concept of the Anthropocene is that the official start date is supposed to be 1950. And when I was thinking about the idea that climate change is only a factor of modern society, it struck me as odd and slightly absurd. And it seems not just odd to me, of course: there’s been a lot of work that certainly predates the exhibition, and work and research that I was looking at, and working from. Theorists like Donna Haraway, and other people who I think have made the cogent point that if we want to understand the origins of climate change, we must go back a lot further than 1950. We need to go back to the 16th century, to the origins of colonialism. We have to go back to European expansion into the New World. And if we do that, we can look at how a range of practices—extractive agriculture and industry, mass migrations of people, large scale shifts of currency, dramatic changes to the physical environment of different countries, through physical intervention into the landscape—these are all set in place by “Western” expansion into what we now call the developing world. Into the Global South.
We Are History gathered the work of artists who had personal origins in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America (figs. 1 and 2). This essentially follows the slave routes that took ships from Europe to Africa to “the new world”. I was interested in how artists, who have connections to those countries and landscapes, drew on those connections to think about the implications of climate change. Through their work, we start to see how these histories of colonial extractive practices and exploitations of people still shape the planet today. And are the foundation on which both contemporary society and economy and climate crisis are built upon. I was interested in this as a theoretical territory. As a historical reality. And then more than that, as an exhibition. I am intrigued by how artists are looking at that territory and creating work that speaks to those histories. Not necessarily in linear, straightforward, or didactic terms. Artists speak lyrically. They speak poetically, sometimes. And so, I was interested in how the artists in my exhibition were offering a way to re-encounter these histories. And offering ways of seeing, ways of conjuring these quite complicated connections. And in the process creating works that had real beauty and real fragility to them. The proposition of the show is: can we approach complex histories of colonialism, race, and climate change aesthetically?
AP: I think that’s a very good question. You already briefly touched upon it, but how do you think colonialism is still perpetuated today, when looking at the appropriation of land, the exploitation and destruction of nature, human beings, and animals?
EE: When we look at the landscapes of the Caribbean, for example, European intervention into the Caribbean begins at the end of the 15th Century. And within generations, the landscapes of different Caribbean islands are radically transformed. Plantation agriculture means the clearing of landscapes. The importation of flora and fauna, both deliberately and accidentally, meant the importation, in fact, of all the things that we now consider typically Caribbean: palm trees, coconuts, pineapples, bananas. Equally, forced migration of people, through slavery, dramatically changed the population of different Caribbean Islands. But also, disease and microbial infection begins to catastrophically affect Indigenous populations on some of the islands. So, due to European intervention, within a hundred, two hundred years, these landscapes are fundamentally altered on both a physical and human geographic level.
The family origins of one of the artists in the exhibition, Albert Whittle, lie in Barbados. She made a short film about the hurricane season there, and how it has become increasingly intense in recent years (figs. 3 and 4). To the extent of now creating a scenario of ongoing peril on the island. The increasing intensity of those hurricanes on the island is a direct consequence of the climate crisis. The roots of which lie hundreds of years in the past, yet we still feel the effects today. The reason why she’s so invested in this, is because her parents are still there. So, there is both a theoretical or historical link that she’s interested in following, as well as a lived reality for her and her family. As an artist, she can respond to and address that by making a film that is beautiful and moving and stirring—and is also a warning.
I’m interested in how artists deal with such complex histories. And what they create, allows us to look even further. Allows us to look into the past through their eyes. In terms of creating imagistic scenarios that enable us to dream at the same time—even if those dreams are based on nightmares. Artist still have an ability, I think, to conjure more than one state simultaneously. I think that’s an incredibly helpful way to approach the climate crisis. Not didactically. But through an understanding that the complexities of those situations do not disqualify us from also considering what beauty might look like.
AP: I think that’s a very good notion of how you can really expand the didactic into becoming more. To conveying a story that brings this complex historical continuum of colonialism, extraction, and slavery to life. In this light I am wondering, how can exhibitions help a broad museum audience, which includes people from all backgrounds and walks of life, to interrogate our histories and geographies in an accessible way?
EE: The thing about exhibitions is that they are about space. They’re about physical spaces you create or curate. Within that space, several things can happen. If you’re dealing with a group show – like my show or your show – then you’re dealing with individual elements, individual artworks, products, or propositions, in a collective space. I think that the point of making a show is trying to immerse people in this space, in a way of seeing, a way of experiencing.
The experience of being immersed within these different artworks, within the different themes, can make you become part of that conversation. It may be a way for you, as a visitor, to glimpse something, to glimpse a set of connections that you hadn’t previously made. And I think, part of the show—when we’re dealing with some of these complicated or complex issues—is not necessarily to provide answers. But just to hopefully encourage visitors to be able to make connections across those artworks and back to their own world. You just try to encourage people to see things through the eyes of those artists, to see what happens when you connect the dots yourself.
I’m just wondering, is it too much to ask, to walk through the world and recognize it as a place of beauty?
AP: I hope that is something we can accomplish. In 2020, British research agency YouGov conducted international research into how people in various European countries look back on their national colonial history today. And apparently, half of the Dutch people that were questioned for this poll said that they are still proud of their colonial history. And over a quarter of those questioned even wished they still had colonies. That was so shocking for me. This made me wonder how to even begin to approach this whole notion of the connection between colonialism and climate change. I concluded that it was important to show that the climate crisis is being felt by people in the Netherlands: right here on our doorstep, right now. So the connection between their life and these concepts could become as clear as possible.
EE: I think that if you did the same poll in Britain, it probably would be similar. With my exhibition, the goal is empathy. The goal isn’t necessarily explanation. One of the artists in my show, Shiraz Bayjoo is British-Mauritian, and is interested in the East African islands. Mauritius, Madagascar, and so on, and in legacies of colonialism, legacies of extractive practice and of slavery. He created an installation for the show that included batik hangings, archive photographs, engravings that were originally drawn by Dutch sailors in the East Indies in the 17th century (fig. 5). The overall experience of the installation looks dazzling and beautiful. But if you look closer at some of the individual elements, they have depictions of colonial violence attached to them (fig. 6). For example, the engravings that Dutch sailors made, they are horrifying. Pictures of Dutch sailors riding on the backs of turtles, clubbing flightless birds. They are scenes of violence. They show a presumption by the Dutch that all the territory, the land and all of the animals, are there only for their utilization.
The proposition of the installation is that its various aspects are part of a web, a network, a set of historic relationships that have been in play for hundreds of years. So, we can look at the horror of violence and extraction as part of a greater whole.
As we can see with this poll, it turns out that irrespective of how much information there is about the violence of empire, people can still be proud of it. One of the ways through, potentially, is to encourage people to look through the eyes of people who are not them. And to recognize people from the Global South, as human. And that’s maybe an obvious thing to say. But one of the foundational aspects of an imperial attitude is an assumption of cultural hierarchy. An assumption that who you are, is more significant than who someone else is. And at the heart of that, is a lack of recognition of shared humanity. And this too, is one of the foundational aspects of the climate crisis. The idea that somehow this is a problem that happens somewhere else, and it doesn’t really affect us.
AP: I really like that both your goal and starting point is empathy: that’s what we want to achieve, and only from there, can we set out. Your exhibition consisted of work by artists that all show their own perspective on this matter, and all share their view on how we arrived here, in this moment in time. In what way do you think designers can aid the restoration of our relationship with our planet?
EE: One of the places we come to, often in the West, is an assumption that we hold all the answers to the problems that we created. Being able to think about and look at the work of Indigenous peoples—and of peoples outside the Northern hemisphere, or outside the West, is important. Not because necessarily, they have all the answers—but they also have ways of seeing and ways of understanding. Ways of conceptualizing time, space, physical place, planet history, that are relevant when we’re talking about global climate shifts. I think part of what designers can do is to look at some of the dialogues that have been taking place in this territory already—precisely as you suggested earlier. To show that to some extent, we’re the ones who are catching up. In terms of how we understand land. How we understand space. These are things that, in some cultures and societies, have been part of an understanding of who we are and how we live that go back millennia. I think that design, as much as any other part of society, can only benefit from opening up to some broader notions and knowledge systems.
AP: I think that there are some brilliant artists that can, like you say, literally show this connection or this complex story. But design makes the connection in a different way. Because sometimes, it’s just a chair. Of course, we do explain in the exhibition labels that this is a chair made of twenty kilos of plastic, coming from landfills in Indonesia. And at the same time design is close to people’s lives. Because we all sit on chairs, at this very moment in fact! So, I think it’s two-fold: what design perhaps lacks in poetry, it makes up for in a certain straightforwardness. With the exhibition we are saying: this is another, different choice you can make if you’re in the market for a new chair.
I have one more question. What was also crucial for us, is that there would be an element of joy in the exhibition. That it celebrates creativity. So, we have used an abundance of color and all these different, vibrant recycled or recyclable materials in the exhibition design. Because we really felt it was important to give that to the visitors. We didn’t want them to leave feeling they might as well give up because it is too late. We wanted them to leave the exhibition feeling excited and inspired.
Are you hopeful for the future?
EE: It’s a good question. I don’t know how hopeful I am, is the absolute truth of it. But I am constantly inspired by the work of artists and designers. Because what I think gives me hope or faith, is the work that I see that continues to treasure the world around us. I put together We Are History in the same way. You start with one concept, and you keep going, and you keep going. What I was really struck by at some point, was how much beauty there was in the show. How much texture there was. And what also struck me was that certainly the artists that I was looking at, were able to look at peril and find possibility. Or find aesthetic possibility there. They found a way to create tapestries, or film works, or photographs, or collages, or paintings that could take your breath away. None of that work discounts the peril of the planet. What they say is: we want to take seriously this existential crisis that is very difficult to comprehend or hold. One of the ways to do that, is by continuing to treasure the planet that we live on. Continue to treasure it, and understand both its fragility and its beauty.
AP: Thank you. So not necessarily hopeful, but a plea to fully appreciate what we have and to find joy in that?
EE: I’m just wondering, is it too much to ask, to walk through the world and recognize it as a place of beauty? I think about that a lot. Especially the last couple of years, because we’ve all been knocked down somewhat. Turns out the things that are truly precious are the people around you. But also, being able to go for a walk in a park, or some woods. These small things become truly significant. And on a small human scale, these are part of the larger whole, of what we have and what we might lose.
Writer and curator Ekow Eshun is the Chairman of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing the UK’s leading public art programme, and the former Director of the ICA, London. He is the author of books including In the Black Fantastic and Black Gold of the Sun, nominated for the Orwell Prize, and has contributed to publications on artists including Mark Bradford, Chris Ofili, Kehinde Wiley, John Akomfrah and Wangechi Mutu. He was the curator of the exhibition We Are History at Somerset House, London in 2021.
 Editor’s note: the same research was conducted among people in the UK, where 32 percent of those questioned said to be proud of British Empire.