By Manon Stravens
The devastating effects of climate change and the steps needed for mitigation and adaptation are increasingly recognised, but the ways to communicate this complex message are less studied. This expert view explores the power of art and artivism for climate justice advocacy. Can art do for climate justice what jargon and statistics cannot do?
“Art advocacy speaks to everyone, stays longer, and engages people. There is no better way to communicate climate justice than through art.” Samantha Nengomasha enthusiastically speaks about the power of art. Her organisation, African Crossroads, gathers African thinkers, makers, creators, and entrepreneurs to reach out to a wider community, contribute to a new narrative and to a public debate about climate change, and call for dissent.
Art as political expression, art as protest, and art as a catalyst for social change are far from new phenomena. Civil rights organisations, trade unions and the LHBTI community are just a few of the groups that have been using art to strengthen their message. Climate justice activists are now increasingly using art as an advocacy tool to lobby for policy change and communicate key climate messages. From a plastic museum in Indonesia to children’s drawings exhibitions targeting parliamentarians in Zambia. A wide variety of art forms, including paintings, photography, dance, music, poetry, and storytelling make climate change and its effects painfully visible.
While recognition is growing that the climate is changing drastically by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, pollution, ocean and soil contamination, thereby greatly impacting human life and human rights, there has been limited research into the sharing of climate change information and communication about the impacts and what we need to do. Even less is known about how marginalised groups - the people who are the least responsible but bear the biggest burden of climate change - can be meaningfully engaged in this climate justice movement.
An acceptable language
In short, the role of art in the climate justice movement remains underexplored. But a study done by Profundo, commissioned by Dutch NGO Hivos, tells us that interesting lessons can be distilled from art initiatives for climate justice advocacy from the global South. And that art has an underexplored power to explain climate change, facilitate dialogue and express learning, and mobilise movements.
Arts may even become a necessary tool for the climate justice movement, as the climate crisis cannot be tackled through policy and science alone. To engage people and their communities, to help them understand climate change and express their concerns, and to discuss what needs to be done, other ways of communication are required. An “acceptable language” is needed, says for example Prigi Arisandi, founder of the Indonesian organisation Ecoton which advocates for regulations to reduce plastic pollution in Indonesian rivers. Ecoton engages people in its research and campaigns through theatre, video performances, and visual arts.
To him, arts have more effect than “seminars”, “focus group discussions” and “complex theories”, which are too difficult to understand for many people, he says. “I believe the visuals can make people more aware about environmental issues and climate justice and let them take care. Art translates the message to a broader audience. We try to translate it to the grassroots, as our language is more acceptable.”
The power of art is strong, as becomes clear from the interviews with the artists, artist collectives, and civil society organisations from the Global South. To communicate, to engage, to mobilise a broader public. Artists generally have a “free spirit” and can reach out to communities in a different way, think out of the box and collect different information. As Padma Perez from the Philippines said: “Art is not something to put in galleries or something produced by artists exclusively, who get to show their work in galleries.”
A Senate Hall could be a venue for displaying art as well. Perez’s so-called Agam Agenda once organised a photography exhibition in the halls of the Philippine Senate. Senators were confronted with portraits of survivors of climate change around the archipelago. Choosing the Senate halls for this exhibition was a successful attempt to move senators to pass and enact the first national climate finance mechanism dedicated to supporting local climate adaptation plans in the Philippines and South-East Asia, the People’s Survival Fund.
While the impact of art and art advocacy is sometimes difficult to measure, interesting effects are noted from the initiatives studied. For example, Ecoton’s actions in Indonesia and the attention these actions drew to river pollution impelled the local government to introduce new programs, including a program to reduce diaper pollution. In Tunisia, a video produced by the Youth Climate Movement, Greenpeace Middle East and a film actress led to an agreement with the Minister of Education to include climate education in the official school curriculum.
Artists and art initiatives are a welcome addition to any climate justice movement. At the same time, they often deal with limited funds and capacity, while some art forms are costly and time-consuming to produce. Others have encountered criminalisation and violation, as some live and work in conflict areas or in contexts in which some art forms like music are forbidden. As the making of art is not always recognised as a profession, artists sometimes cannot count on the needed protection.
But one thing became clear. Art’s potential is great and at the same time greatly underexplored. And this deserves adequate investment and support for groups and movements that would like to integrate arts in their advocacy strategies.
Want to learn more about the power of art for climate advocacy? Read the report Art & Climate Justice Voices for Just Climate Action, or get in touch with one of the researchers: Diana Quiroz (firstname.lastname@example.org), Eline Achterberg (email@example.com), or Manon Stravens (firstname.lastname@example.org).