Disclaimer: The author of this summary is a settler on stolen land, and does not represent nor claim to represent Indigenous perspectives.
On Thursday, January 27th, 2022, Spheres of Influence hosted an art exhibition on Zoom featuring Indigenous artists from around the world. Due to unforeseen events, only two artists, Jearica Fountain (from what is also known as California) and Elizabeth Swanson Andi (from the Napu Kichwa tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon), were able to join the event live. However, Mariyeh Mushtaq (from Indian-occupied Kashmir) also shared her experiences through a prerecorded video.
Art as a Form of Expression and Education
All three artists agreed that art is an important medium of expressing Indigenous stories and perspectives. As a young child, Swanson attended school for six months every year on Turtle Island (specifically, in what is also known as Tempe, Arizona). As she had lived her entire life prior to kindergarten on her traditional ancestral lands, Swanson was not fluent in either Spanish or English; this meant that art became her main way of expressing herself outside of speaking in her traditional language.
Fountain expressed that “the role for [art] is to not just speak to Indigenous peoples or environmentalists but to educate everybody. (…) Colonialism happens out of ignorance. A lot of people don’t know what’s going on. A lot of people don’t know what they can do about it. A lot of people don’t even know what colonialism is! So the role of art is to educate.” Swanson added that “we’re all naturally curious beings. Sometimes we don’t know, sometimes we grow up without being able to interact with nature all the time.” Thus, art is an important tool for education because it helps people “reflect on themselves, gain new perspectives (…) and feel empathy.”
In fact, art can be a starting point for discussion on the climate emergency, among other important topics. Fountain spoke about how art is an easier and more digestible introduction to the climate emergency as opposed to “the harder and harsher stuff.”
Indigenous Roles and Perspectives in the Fight Against Climate Change
Indigenous voices are crucial in the fight against the climate emergency. Fountain felt that Indigenous peoples are “born to” advocate for the environment and that we all have a responsibility to care for the environment just as Mother Earth cares for everyone. Swanson added that “[humans] are an extension of nature and not separate. There are relations and interconnections that we have. So if we can see more through that lens, we’ll see that as humans we’re not that different. (…) In my language, there’s no word for nature. In English and Spanish, nature is this whole separate thing because at some point the language evolved to be this whole different thing. And that is not true.”
According to Fountain, there’s often “a lot of ego in people who take care of the environment,” with people being given “a gold star” for something that is a common responsibility. “As Indigenous peoples, we’re born into this world knowing that it’s our responsibility to take care of Mother Earth.” She argued that, in fact, it is our shared responsibility to care for nature. “Mother Earth doesn’t ask for anything of us but to respect it (…) it’s our responsibility that the Earth gives to us and we respect it back.” Swanson added that the idea of “sav[ing] the Earth” is erroneous; rather, the framing should be more about respect.
Evolution of Art Forms and Oppression
Art plays an important role in many Indigenous cultures. According to Swanson, traditional Napu Kichwa art forms include dancing, different face paints, feather crowns representing beauty, and pottery. These art forms, however, were suppressed during colonisation and people in the community often felt the need to self-censor or disconnect from their culture so as not to be seen as outwardly Indigenous and thus to not face increased discrimination. Dancing was even banned for a while before it was allowed again.
For many Indigenous artists, staying connected to their ancestral roots doesn’t necessitate a rejection of contemporary mediums. Current technologies can help enhance art. For example, Swanson incorporates photography into her art, as well as videos of nature including audio which can help viewers more fully engage with nature. Fountain added that technology can also enhance the educational value of art: for example, QR codes have been added to art pieces linking to educational resources.
Extraction and Colonialism
Extraction comes in many forms. For Kashmir, extraction of hydroelectric power is one of the main forms of “militarism and neocolonialism” in the region, according to Mushtaq. “[Kashmir] is a region that produces thousands and thousands of watts of hydroelectricity every day, yet the people themselves suffer because all of that is being extracted to another region altogether. (…) People have no agency, no say over how these resources are used.” Mushtaq’s artwork mainly focuses on the lives of the Kashmiri people under this “crisis, (…) militarism and oppression,” with the particular piece of artwork that was displayed at the event being set in the city of Srinagar.
What to Do?
Both Fountain and Swanson agreed that an openness to speak out and learn is crucial to supporting Indigenous voices in climate action. Other ways of doing this include joining conversations on climate action and decolonisation, supporting Indigenous activists and artists, and donating to as well as signing petitions for Indigenous movements against exploitation. Talking to friends and family in a discussion about the climate and colonisation also helps.
If you’d like to support Jearica Fountain, Elizabeth Swanson Andi, and Mariyeh Mushtaq, you can find more information about their work here.