A new exhibition highlights the links between race, colonialism, and climate change

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The group exhibition offers an alternative perspective on the climate crisis by emphasising the unheard voices of the southern hemisphere

On the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a scattering of palm trees populate the landscape. From 1941 to 2003, the US military used the island for naval exercises, and trees were planted to act as markers for hazardous waste disposal sites, now described as “conservation zones”. For artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, these trees symbolise something both seen and unseen across the Global South: an environment in danger. The duo will be joined by eight other artists for a group exhibition on show this autumn at Somerset House, London, looking at the complex relationship between the climate crisis and colonialism. Allora & Calzadilla printed the images of the waste disposal site onto woven mesh, blurring and blocking out details – an apt metaphor, according to the show’s curator Ekow Eshun. “It is a paradise that now lies out of reach,” he says. “Impermeable.”

Contract (AOC L), 2014, Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.

“Climate change has a racial history,” Eshun states. “When we talk about the climate crisis, we tend to not look back at the relationship between people and place before the Industrial Revolution.” He is speaking of the mass ecological shifts during the last 500 years, when plants, animals and people were shipped across the planet, forced to relocate to new homes and habitats.

We Are History, which runs from 16 October to 06 February 2022, analyses these phenomena through the lens of the Global South and indigenous cultural practices. “Climate discussions seem to centre on the northern hemisphere, and search for solutions in the very technologies that have accelerated the crisis. This exhibition highlights the pre-existing networks seen globally, the beauty of nature, as well as its fragility,” Eshun explains.

Alongside Allora & Calzadilla’s investigation, the exhibition includes an array of artists with personal connections to the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Photographer and video artist Zineb Sedira’s The Lovers and Sugar Routes I document the mass consumption of imported sugar across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Carolina Caycedo focuses on Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, and displays archival images, maps and satellite photographs that trace the story of the destruction of water sources for displaced communities. Each of the nine artists responds to the central theme of decolonising the discussion surrounding climate change in different ways, but are unified in a shared understanding that to look forward, we must look back.

Serpent River Book Extract. Courtesy of Carolina Caycedo.

The exhibition – which coincides with the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair – is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but an honest reflection of the interconnectedness between the climate crisis and a worldwide colonial legacy. From deadly flooding in Haiti, to dam-building spanning numerous countries in Latin America, the Global South has borne the cost of environmental exploitation long before discussions on climate change were first initiated. The exhibition highlights this while drawing attention to the fractured realities our global framework is built upon.

We Are History is on show at Somerset House from 16 October to 06 February 2022. Find out more here

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.