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We Are History: ‘We’re here together, changing, mutating, limbo-ing, twisting, turning into weather’

We Are History, a group show curated by Ekow Eshun offers an expansion of the visual framework surrounding climate change — from historical and postcolonial to lyrical and poetic

Ekow Eshun – cultures, identities and histories: the African diaspora

As a British-Ghanaian writer, broadcaster, editor, and curator, Ekow Eshun is interested in thinking – about the cultures, identities and histories of the people of the African diaspora and how artists explore these territories.

Having written an Orwell Prize-nominated memoir, Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, Eshun is a regular contributor of The Guardian, The Independent, and The Observer, as well as BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review and Front Row.

As the former Artistic and Executive Director of the ICA in London, Eshun is also the current Chairman of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing London’s most significant public arts programme. Through curation, he finds novel ways to explore these areas with a non-literalism that is not possible in his writing. Eshun explains, «if you deal with words, you – in a literal sense – have to put words down». 

His enthusiasm for art comes from the brilliance of artists to think outside of units of language and, through their work, still be able to make implicit and poetic connections into a set of enquiries.

1945: Anthropocene begins

Though the effects of climate change have become more apparent across the planet through images of crumbling ice caps and distraught-looking polar bears, its roots and consequences run much deeper and longer than this. 

The Anthropocene is the unofficial unit of geologic time used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history – when human activity started to have an impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. Most theorists believe that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be set in 1945. This is when humans first tested and then dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. 

Citing the work of scholar and theorist Donna Harraway, who made what he believes to be the code of proposition, Eshun is troubled that this reading disregards earlier events, such as the industrial revolution and its effect on the environment. He explains, «if we want to understand how we have arrived at where we currently are, we have to look much further back in time. We have to go back to colonialism, we have to go back to the start of mass migration, extractive practices in mining, agriculture and industrialization».

These mass movements of capital and people, which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, also need to be accounted for.

Lampoon, We Are History at Somerset House, London, photography Tim Bowditch
We Are History at Somerset House, London, photography Tim Bowditch

Colonial Amnesia

The term colonial amnesia refers to this denial of the violence of our colonial past. Countries in the Global South are rarely centered in narratives surrounding climate change, despite being disproportionately affected since the colonial era of the eighteenth century.

In the Caribbean, for example, we can look at how the fora, fauna and ecology of the islands were radically modified, to a degree that had been previously unseen in human history, by the intervention of European powers – Britain, France, and Spain – with the introduction of new species, diseases, bacteria, animals and people. These interventions change not only the look or infrastructure of a place, but how we work, produce and communicate across the planet.

«What happens on one part of the planet, cannot be discounted from how we live or what futures may be like on another part of the planet», remarks Eshun. «This ties into climate change and how one of the faints and tactics of colonialism – certainly as it was practiced in Britain – is to pretend or imagine that the exploitation of peoples in Africa and the Caribbean has no consequence here. That you can take their riches, without also paying the price for that».

We Are History – a  visual framework surrounding climate change

Though this is a discussion that has been had in academic circles for some time, Eshun is interested in how artists have also been exploring aspects of this territory. We Are History offers an expansion of the visual framework surrounding climate change, with artworks that range from historical and postcolonial to lyrical and poetic.

«Often, the conceptual territory of shows privileges ideas over outcomes – sometimes that is appropriate, but sometimes it is relevant to present works that, as one aspect of what they do, embrace beauty», reflects Eshun. «When it comes to climate change it becomes key to not only envisage landscapes and environments under distress, but also to hold onto the beauty of those places».

Combining peril and exploitation with articulations of beauty and possibility is a key part of the visual language that we must not only carry forward in debates on climate change, but also history and race.

Eshun explores, «we – as people of color – can assert our rite to enjoy landscape, to enjoy nature, because, historically speaking, we have been shipped across slave routes to work the land. The idea or the role of art is to say that our enjoyment of these landscapes, even in consideration of the blood that has been spilt on the land, is a key aspect of our own reparations».

Puerto Rican artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla

The exhibition opens with artworks by Puerto Rico based artists, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who have used a screen-printing method to highlight areas where the U.S. military used palm trees as natural markers to identify where hazardous waste had been disposed of.

The use of black ink to disrupt captured landscape scenery exposes the underlying health hazards of these sites. In 1941, the U.S. Navy purchased or seized almost eight percent of Vieques, Puerto Rico, while Europe was in the middle of World War II.

Originally intended to be a safe haven for the British fleet, their occupation of the land triggered the fall of the local sugar industry and many residents were evicted or forced to migrate. During their sixty year occupation, the U.S. military used the island for live munitions target practice, occurring 180 days out of year on average.

The munitions used were hazardous to the land and its occupants, with the health consequences – such as comparatively higher cancer rates on the island (twenty-seven percent higher than mainland Puerto Rico), especially in children – still felt to this day. Contract (AOC L), 2014 depicts the division, destruction and partitioning of the idyllic harmony of the landscapes through the use of ink forced through the woven mesh in these AOC’s: the military abbreviation for Area Of Concern.

Carolina Caycedo

The work of multidisciplinary Colombian artist, Carolina Caycedo, traces the impact of human intervention on the environment. While working with Colombian, Brazilian and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of the river system, Caycedo explored how Colombia’s largest hydroelectric project, Hidroituango, has created an ecological disaster after emergency measures reduced the water flow of the second most important river, the Cauca, from 450 to 500 cubic meters per second of a normal dry-season to only thirty-five cubic meters per second, less than ten percent of the normal flow.

Tens of thousands of people living down-stream from the dam have been evacuated, as flash foods and landslides destroy communities. Lying in the path of the flash foods, fifty-nine homes, a school and a health center were destroyed in Puerto Valdivia and more than 600 people have been displaced.

Caycedo combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics and satellite pictures in Serpent River Book, 2017. The seventy-two page accordion fold-style book is presented alongside the artist’s images and texts on river biodiversity and includes a Navigation Chart of its contents and the communities’ work to repel and resist the continued building of these structures.

The book has two directions – one to navigate along a flow of words, and the other to navigate against the current along a flow of images, but ultimately can be opened in many ways: «In this book, neither the images nor words are tied to any particular intention. The image and the word river are the image and the word river, which means all rivers and none in particular. How can we make sure that a river is not my river or your river, but the river of everyone, the river of no one?». It also contains suggestions for how the book could be used in different situations of daily life, such as «to drive away apparitions, recognize allies, and express states of mind».

Mazenett Quiroga

The works of artist duo Mazenett Quiroga explore the relationships between living organisms and how the resources in their ecosystems – both mineral and biological – are appropriated and expanded across cultures, becoming integral to globalized economies and our daily lives as part of their research project Don’t say tomorrow, because the jaguar will take you.

The artists’ fascination with the jaguar – present as both a physical and spiritual animal in most native American cultures – was the motivation for their exploration of its habitat in the Colombian Amazon and the Lacandon jungle in Mexico. Here, mineral mining, cattle ranching and the cultivation of African palm are threatening the jungle.

In Selva Intervenida (Amazonas), 2018, photographs of the jungle landscape are overlaid with geometric patterns corresponding to the crystalline shape of gold, highlighting how both humans and animals suffer habitat destruction in the same way.

Mazenett Quiroga affirm the equal importance of Indigenous knowledge systems alongside Western science in understanding the complexities of the world around us, without essentializing or privileging technology and industrialized knowledge.

«We, in the North, have looked at people in the developing world as if they don’t matter – as if their voice doesn’t matter, as if their presence doesn’t matter, as if their lives don’t matter – that’s one of the ways that you can get away with exploiting the land, the people, and the natural resources of countries, hemispheres and continents for centuries».

Eshun asks: «What happens if we take a broader view? What happens if we stop and listen to people in the developing world?» He suggests that this is how we can honor indigenous epistemologies – by listening to the experiences and knowledge-gathering of indigenous people who have worked the land for centuries and recognizing the inherent sophistication of their scientific, medicinal, and ecological practices.

Lampoon, We Are History at Somerset House
We Are History at Somerset House, London, photography Tim Bowditch

Alberta Whittle

We Are History concludes with two video works, one of which is from the forest to the concrete (to the forest), 2019 by Alberta Whittle. The film explores the increased frequency of hurricane season in parts of the Caribbean, which has also meant more intense weather events, such as cyclones, floods and earthquakes.

In 2019, Hurricane Dorian, classifed as a Category 5 Atlantic-hurricane, hit the Caribbean with sustained winds reaching 200 miles per hour and was recorded as the greatest Atlantic-hurricane wind speed at landfall. Prior to this, there have been four other Category 5 hurricanes – Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), Maria (2017) and Michael (2018) – to hit the Bahamas over the past four years.

The Grand Bahama Island saw strong winds for forty hours, becoming one of the most prolonged known population exposures to extreme hurricane hazards. Submerging entire neighborhoods, it dragged a two-story-high storm surge to the shore and killed at least forty-three people with hundreds still missing.

Change can be possible and it can be possible through us as people


By evoking Black feminist writers, such as Octavia Butler, Whittle’s flm links the structural inequalities left in the wake of the European colonial presence in the Caribbean with its ecological consequences. It calls for reflections on comfort living in the U.K. and elsewhere with footage of Hurricane Dorian and how it affected the people of the Caribbean.

The ten minute film ends with a young relative of Whittle’s dancing on a beach in the moonlight, on the screen the following words play out: ‘Everyday I tell myself to grow softer, to find a flow between the world I know and the world I want to be in with you.

We’re here together, changing, mutating, limbo-ing, twisting, turning into weather, The wake and the aftermath of slavery, of imperialism, of everyday anti-blackness we endure’. The film calls for a better and more hopeful future – one beyond capitalism, patriarchy, and empire – and explorations into other ways of living together.

In Eshun’s utopian terms, it says: «Change can be possible and it can be possible through us as people. That’s a fragile way of imagining things, because the one thing about any human is that we’re that we’re fragile. We can break and we can die, so the idea that we can also change something through who we are and how we live is a beautiful point»

The cultural practices and knowledge systems of indigenous people

We Are History, a group show on exhibition in the Terrace Rooms at Somerset House from October 16, 2021 to February 22, 2022 offered a different perspective of the human impact on the planet by tracing the interrelations between today’s climate crisis and legacies of colonialism. «A group show, well handled, becomes a way to think», says Eshun.

By combining the work of eleven artists with personal ties to Africa, the Caribbean and South America including Alberta Whittle, Allora & Calzadilla, Carolina Caycedo, Louis Henderson, Malala Andrialavidrazana, Mazenett Quiroga, Otobong Nkanga, Zineb Sedira and Shiraz Bayjoo– the exhibition focuses on the cultural practices and knowledge systems of indigenous people.

A utopian space where ideas and opinions are not marginalized

Eshun’s curatorial process for We Are History addresses the complexities of finding kinship between artists who, whether individually or collectively, were already exploring the territories of his thesis for the group show in their work, without assuming that they belonged together just because their works explore climate change in a collective moment.

The exhibition incorporates a range of different media – from photography and film, to tapestries, collages and a book – that, as well as identifying with the territory thematically, maintain an aesthetic point of connection.

Taking seriously his responsibility to create an environment in which the works are not only speaking to one another but to you, the visitor, as well, Eshun allows himself the freedom of not only thinking but imagining: «The goal is that you create a small utopian space where these ideas and ways of seeing – ways of being even – are privileged rather than marginalized».

Ekow Eshun

Ghanaian-British writer, journalist and broadcast journalist. Before leaving before the end of his six-month notice period, he was the artistic director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Currently he contributes to BBC2’s arts programme Newsnight Review on Friday nights, and he was editor of Arena magazine. Additionally, Eshun is editor-in-chief of Tank Magazine.

Mojola Lawal

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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