In the Pacific Ocean, a native island community has lived using stick charts to map the seas.
For Micronesians of the Marshall Islands, stick charts, made of midribs of coconut fronds, served generations of their people in navigating through the 29 islands of the archipelago.
These charts that mark each island with a seashell, hold huge significance to the history of cartography. It might seem rudimentary, yet these unique maps have played a role in warning explorers about prevailing ocean surface wave-crests.
The stick charts are a legacy that combined the creativity and maritime genius of the Micronesians in co-existing with their environment.
In the flood plains along Mali’s Bani River, a peculiar structure with three minaret soar to the skies.
Made out of sun-baked earth bricks, sand, and earth-based mortar, the Great Mosque of Djenné was built in the 13th century and today, still regarded as a centrepiece of the religious and cultural life of Mali and a symbol of Djenne’s architectural heritage and cultural identity. UNESCO recognised this when the structure was designated World Heritage Site in 1988.
Each year, the people of Djenné continue to partake in the maintenance of the mosque. During an annual festival, they reinforce the mud walls and repair the damages caused by rain and humidity.
As food and music are served, the 2,272-year-old town of Djenné comes alive. Children help to prepare the plaster mixture and men climb onto tall scaffolding and ladders made of palm wood to smear the wet clay and plaster over the walls of the mosque.
The elderly are given a special place of honour in the market square to observe the festival’s proceeding.
Unfortunately, climate change threatens to upturn this ancient town’s way of life as indicated in a recent study published by Azania journal. Researchers warn that due to serious degradation of mud in the surrounding area, Djenné would have to resort to different materials than the once abundant, locally sourced mud from nearby flood plains.
In the Marshall Islands, the creative Micronesians saw their homeland being conquered by Japan in World War II, before being wrested away by the U.S. and turned into a testing site for atomic bombs in the Cold War era.
Between 1946 to 1958, 67 nuclear bombs were detonated on the islands once populated by these creative seafaring folk. Communities were upended as four northern atolls; Enewetak, Bikini, Rongelap, and Utrok, began experiencing radiation of up to 1,000 times more than Hiroshima.
Both of these accounts depict how different civilisations have been creative with nature, incorporating it into art, culture, and way of life. Today, however, our prevailing culture has morphed into one that is more destructive than creative with nature.
Ben Twist, who leads Creative Carbon Scotland, – a charity that is working hard to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland, posits that climate change is actually a cultural issue.
In his insightful TEDx talk delivered at the Heriot-Watt University, Ben, who is also actively involved with the UK performing arts, raised that UNESCO in 1982, had come up with a “marvelous definition of culture” to establish his point.
“What I think this definition does overall is; it says that culture, in its broadest sense, is the way in which we live in the world,” Ben said of the definition of culture spelled out at UNESCO’s Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies.
“This covers everything from the way we live, eat, sleep, and what have you. The way we live in the world today is the culture of consumption,” said Ben.
He cited examples in the way humans have mined and continue to dig for the earth’s resources, creating usable materials, and then throwing them away once they no longer serve a purpose.
“Climate change is a product of that culture of consumption.”
Globally, many countries and cities have cultivated a culture of consumption in the pursuit of development, progress, and excess. This mainstream culture has been a detriment to the marginal voices of indigenous peoples and communities, struggling to preserve their minority cultures and ways of life.
Cultural rights are a crucial, yet often unaddressed topic in conversations of climate change impacts. This was notably pointed out by the British Council’s Head of Arts and Creative Industries, Florence Lambert.
“While climate change has been well identified as a human rights crisis, the cultural rights dimension is overlooked,” said Florence at the opening of the virtual forum titled, ‘Climate Change: What Does it Mean for Arts and Cultural Rights?’.
The forum, which was held in conjunction with Partner South East Asia: Arts and Culture Matters was also attended by Shaq Koyok, a Malaysian artist-activist who has been consistently vocal about the plight facing Malaysia’s indigenous people.
As a member of the indigenous community himself, Shaq uses his canvas to advocate for the untold stories of his community. He underscored Florence’s point by sharing how the culture of consumption, fueled by capitalism, has led many of his people to lose their homes in the name of progress.
“Nature is very much part of our lives and has been so for generations. This knowledge of living alongside nature has been passed down from our ancestors and is part of my DNA. Unfortunately, the indigenous people in Malaysia who are now a minority, have become victims of development projects.”
Shaq shared how the Orang Asli, Malaysia’s indigenous community, have been uprooted and forced to relocate away from their ancestral dwellings. They are cornered deeper into the jungle and forced to subsist in territories that are not only unfamiliar but sometimes, ill-suited for the community’s agrarian methods. This threat has been a source of constant stress, that has affected the livelihood and lifespan of his people.
“We get pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle. With no proper roads, it takes us days to leave the jungle. For example in Gua Musang, Kelantan, they are so rural it is so hard to even go to the shops,” Shaq revealed in an interview with Eksentrika.
“In unfamiliar territory, Orang Asli face the risk of being attacked by tigers, elephants, or panthers. It is really not safe!”
Between 2000 and 2016, a study conducted by Stockholm University shows that there has been an increase in climate change art, indicating a growing concern for the global crisis.
Yet, some have asked how many of these artworks were impactful enough to become actionable?
According to Laura Kim Sommer and Christian Andreas Klöckner of Norway’s University of Science and Technology’s study, artworks have a huge influence on how we address climate change.
In collating the responses of visitors and participants at the Parisian art festival ArtCOP21 in 2015, Laura and Christian defined four characterizations of climate change art and their impact on the issue.
Turns out, out of the 37 artworks on display, only three made it to the ‘The Awesome Solution’ category.
“I was expecting that offering people a way to participate would lead to more engagement. But it seems that people want to be made aware of something awe-inspiring by someone that thinks differently, rather than be part of the creative process.” Sommer said.
“We suggest that activist art, including environmental art, should move away from a dystopian way of depicting the problems of climate change,” the two researchers concluded in their study.
In other words, creating reactionary art is not enough. It’s important to create artworks that also evoke a sense of awe, wonder, and reveal practical solutions.
Just like the Micronesians who creatively used stick charts to navigate the Pacific Ocean, we need to tap into our creativity and artistry to navigate away from climate catastrophe.
For many artists and activists, raising awareness about the devastating impacts of our destructive cultures will remain a crucial part of advocacy. Yet, equally important would be the works of artists who dare to transcend into the realm of imaginative solutions to spark real-world ingenuity.