Guest Blog: Diversity and Climate Art

(New) Narratives on the Climate Story

By Harpreet Kaur, Creative Consultant and participant of the inaugural Creative Climate Leadership Course in March 2016.

Over the past 6 months I have been researching and talking to artists in England that touch or focus on Climate Change in their work. I am now pleased to be able to share some really interesting and fascinating insights with you. But first I want to explain where this all started and why, as this has been the key to my research approach; how the identity and story of artists connect with the work they do. I think the two are inseparable.

When I have mentioned I am interested in and concerned by Climate Change, I have been met with more than a few frowns from my peers in the arts world, and many other colleagues in all sorts of senior positions in different sectors. Harpreet is not a scientist or environmentalist, she works in the creative industries, she’s involved in audience development and multicultural arts, why is she doing this what is she talking about, she’s not an expert? I got a similar response when I decided to pursue an MSc in World Politics. Well, to me its obvious how interconnected everything is as I am a generalist, perhaps not to specialists and minds that need to put things into boxes. The world desperately needs both.

In 2001 I met Ursula from Australia, whilst living in London, she was there temporarily working and travelling in Europe. We have since become really close friends. Over the years we often argued about Climate Change, something that she had always been extremely passionate about through her campaign and activism work. Ursula grew up surrounded by and enjoying nature whilst I lived in the city; the city is all I know. Ursula owned a horse, loved farming and skiing, all things I did not relate to; I had never even had a pet. Ursula had always been passionate about animals and saving the planet, and I always argued that I was a humanist (academically a Sociologist) and did not see the point of saving the world if we could not even save ourselves. Perhaps we didn’t even deserve the Earth as we treated each other so badly, let alone the damage we were doing to the environment. I even made her cry one time we were arguing. But, it has taken many years and experiences later for me to realise that we were essentially talking about the same thing and did not actually have opposing views, just a different perspective. Language can be so misleading. You see, human beings and their survival is directly linked with nature, and whilst the Earth changes, human beings are and will continue to be impacted in severe traumatic ways. This isn’t about the future, its already happening right now. But if we always illustrate Climate Change with polar bears and trees, its no wonder people struggle to engage with it as also being a human issue.

I got a more in depth insight into the link between the environment and people whilst studying Human Security for my MSc in Gender and International Relations. Human Security is concerned with freedom from fear and want for all individuals, so we all have the right to be safe from violence and have the essential things we need such as food and water to live. This also includes a healthy environment. It is clear that this links with many other areas including economics, politics, and social inequalities.

I researched how oil extraction in Nigeria has a particular type of impact on women and children, as well as the environment. I linked this with creative activism focusing on music by African women, arguing that popular culture has historically been a vehicle to spread messages about social and political issues, and becomes a political tool in different ways.

But neoliberal universal decision-making and cultural imperialism born out of the West, keeping the hegemonic powers in place, also mean that the cultural messages we receive are not necessarily coming from an objective, transparent, representative place. Historically the dominant narratives are not diverse in nature or by diverse peoples, when measuring the global consumption and production of culture. The same is true of climate art, art labelled as art about Climate Change. Most of the art I hear about or see if I Google it is usually by white artists.

In 2015 I spoke at COP21, the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris about the link between Sikhism, Climate Change and Creativity. I had no idea if I had pitched my talk correctly but I absolutely had; there was only one other brown person in the room that gave me the biggest smile; most people had never heard of Sikhism at all. Since then I have participated in EU funded projects to continue exploring my personal interest in the link between art, activism, creative thinking and practice, climate change and sustainability. In 2017 I participated in the first international leadership programme aimed at artists and cultural professionals to explore the cultural dimensions of Climate Change. Why? Because essentially I am an advocate for arts and culture being a necessary vehicle for positive social and global change.

I often noticed that there was not a lot of diversity in many of the rooms and spaces I was entering, at least not visible diversity. I also questioned if messages and marketing did not speak to diverse audiences; did they even speak to me? I am used to being in spaces someone like me often is not in, a brown girl with working class roots from Smethwick. But a lot of what I hear, a lot of the science-y bits go over my head. As much as I’m becoming more of a nature lover partly on my spiritual journey, some conversations about the desperate need for change about the planet and resources have not always spoken to me, but I am still in the room and started to question more deeply why, and particularly where the other creative people of colour are. Are there other people like me, British people of colour, artists looking at Climate Change in their work, and/or is it just that they don’t call it that or even realise there is a connection?

This is where this series of articles Diversity and Climate Arts has come from. I identified a number of British artists, activists and academics to look at Art and Climate Change. Diversity is a very broad term, and in my research the focus has mainly been on talking to people of colour. I asked them a series of questions about their work and why they are doing it. These people were based in London, Birmingham, Manchester and overseas. I was not limited by location for these interviews, the people I found just happened to live in these places.

I am extremely grateful to the individuals I interviewed, who were all very humble and generous in sharing their experiences with me. It has been a fascinating and difficult journey, and sadly some people pulled out at the end and did not want me to publish what we spoke about. This is completely understandable. To talk about diversity, race, social class, inequality and injustice taking place in one’s profession, work place, sector or social circle is not easy. We all know there are problems but at times we all go on with business as usual as to call something out could have a disastrous impact for our livelihoods and even our work.

It hasn’t been easy to do this work, and to find out so much that I can’t share with you. But what I can share is that there are some fascinating, intellectual, passionate individuals out there combining their knowledge, curiosity and experiences to do some amazing work. I hope there can be more of this creative work to engage with the public about what I believe is the most pressing issue of our time. To sort out the mess we have created we need everyone on board, and to do that we need diverse voices telling the story of Climate Change. The planet does not need us to survive, it will continue to go on in some shape or form. It is we that need it to survive, and not just for future generations, but for people living in poorer parts of the world being unfairly punished by richer nations right now.

I hope you enjoy reading the series of interviews I will publish in the next few weeks. I hope they inspire you to reflect on your own relationship with the changing environment and your place on the planet.

Read Harpreet’s interviews

Kooj Chuhan

Emma Ako

Eca Eps

Shaheen Ahmed

Anna Lau

This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

The content of these articles reflect only the views of the author. The Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.