Artists join with climate activists, scientists to paint a greener future

A growing group of artists, including from the Global South, are using their work to spark conversations and action on climate change

Md Tahmid ZamiThomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 19 Oct 2023, 06:45 AM
Updated : 19 Oct 2023, 06:45 AM

Investors in US energy technology firm GE Vernova had some unlikely visitors in September when Ata Mojlish, a Bangladeshi new media artist based in Texas, joined activists to deliver climate-themed works to four financial companies in New York.

GE Vernova - a recently re-branded subsidiary of General Electric - is planning to supply turbines for large liquefied natural gas (LNG) power projects in climate-vulnerable Bangladesh, motivating Bangladeshi artists to join international campaigners in calls for GE to back non fossil-fuel energy instead.

With scientists and policy experts stressing the urgency of climate action ahead of this year's COP28 UN climate summit, artists are using their talents to highlight mounting evidence on the impacts of the climate crisis and to push for a response.

Earlier in Boston, a few blocks away from GE's headquarters, Mojlish and other artists had put on an exhibition called "Electric Bangladesh: Fossil Free Futures", in collaboration with Market Forces, an Australia-based climate advocacy think-tank which contributed information about fossil fuel projects and their impact on local people in coastal Bangladesh.

For the show, Mojlish created a set of collage pieces called "Daily Diet 1-2" depicting power plant machinery as sea vessels viewed from above, overlaid with cables and equipment, taking the people and animals of southern Bangladesh to another world.

His aim, he said, was to shed light on actions that harm the climate, such as investing in fossil fuels like natural gas.

"Art has a transformative energy and I have seen a visual work communicate what a thousand words could not," he said.

Fellow multimedia artist Debashish Chakrabarty created bold retro-style posters in red, yellow and black, sporting blunt captions including "LNG is not green" and "LNG is not clean".

Chakrabarty - who regularly posts his art on his social media accounts - said the exhibition, probably the first uniting Bangladeshi artists aiming to hold companies from the Global North accountable for pollution, also intended to inform Western citizens about what is happening in other parts of the world.

"We wanted to tell these corporations that we people and civil society know what you are doing, and you should do better," he added.

A spokesperson for GE Vernova said its technology helps generate 30% of electricity globally and it makes the world's most efficient gas turbines, adding that natural gas is a "critical alternative to coal and other higher emission fuels" as countries make the transition to renewable energy.

Munira Chowdhury from Market Forces said GE's planned LNG plants in Bangladesh would add about 430 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) to the atmosphere over their lifetime, almost double Bangladesh's annual emissions.

GE has extensive wind energy capacity and could play a major role in building more renewable power in Bangladesh, she added.

The firm's spokesperson said by email that GE is "committed to strong, concerted action to decarbonise the energy sector while increasing access to more sustainable, reliable and affordable energy in countries such as Bangladesh".

OPENING DOORS TO SCIENCE

Climate experts and communicators say it can be hard to make climate discussions - often couched in technical terms - understandable to ordinary people, especially those who speak languages other than English.

Artists can help untangle those concepts, said Deborah Hart, co-chair of CLIMARTE, an organisation that has harnessed art for climate action since 2010.

"Artists bring incredible skills to the table - they are complex systems thinkers who can take risks and be ambitious, and they care deeply about the issue," she said.

Since climate art took off as a recognisable trend in the early 2000s, its practice has grown rapidly.

Artists have picked up the theme in creative ways such as installations with the sound of dying glaciers, pencils crafted from a dead oak tree and luxury soaps made of raw sewage seeping out of flooded city drains.

More artists are working with climate scientists, meanwhile, to turn their findings into poignant experiences that can be experienced by a wider community of people.

Blane De St Croix, an American sculptor and installation artist, left the confines of his studio and began researching landscapes, taking up academic fellowships and speaking with scientists over the last seven to eight years to inform his art.

His latest show is at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery in the United Arab Emirates - which will host COP28 in Dubai in December - with the exhibition's sculptures delving into the fragile local ecology and connecting local problems, such as salinisation and ocean pollution, to global warming.

They include "High Peaks: Himachal", a work featuring giant white pedestals topped by Himalayan peaks from which ice melts down like dripping wax, a reminder writ large of scientists' warnings that the South Asian mountain range may lose 80% of its glaciers by the end of the century.

"I want people to enter into the climate conversation through my art opening doors for them," De St Croix told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The artist's video interviews with scientists are shown alongside his works, boosting interest in their climate research.

One paper on climate change highlighted by De St Croix got 160,000 hits on the internet, he said.

"As I open the door to the public and create a platform, it can create unexpected impacts," he explained.

REACHING HEARTS WITH NATURE

While some artists are focused on scientific facts or activism, others explore the profound connections between people and nature - and imagine a better world.

A 2023 study found that artistic visualisations touched Americans' feelings more positively than data graphs and helped overcome political divisions on the relevance of climate change.

"We have to be brutally honest about why we are here, with a clear sense of what genuine climate justice looks like - and artists can impress the urgency of making the turn towards a greener future upon people," said Hart from CLIMARTE.

One veteran artist seeking to elevate hope over despair is Anoma Wijewardene, a painter born in Sri Lanka who calls herself a "citizen of the world".

Wijewardene has held several exhibitions touching on climate and ecology, with her first climate paintings dating back to 2005. They explore how humans relate to the natural world, conceived as both material and "numinous", or spiritual.

Her last climate-themed exhibition in London in 2019 featured nine paintings, each with patterns resembling landscapes touched with fiery orange and crimson where a small, lonely red figure lingers, symbolising the young climate activist Greta Thunberg on a boiling planet.

"I was so inspired by Greta that she crept in (to the paintings)," said Wijewardene.

The artist plans to continue focusing on climate change because of her personal concern about the issue. The key, she added, is to touch deeper human emotions.

"You need to show the beauty of nature to reach people's hearts – combining science and technology but also love - and that's how you change people," she said.