While tools such as education, policy, and technology are often prioritised in discussions about building a more sustainable world, the potential influence of art in this space can be underestimated. Art has the unique power to evoke emotions, spark conversations and catalyse change with an increasing number of contemporary artists incorporating climate action into their work. This can range from working with upcycled materials to working with scientists to create visual representations of data.
At first glance, the worlds of science and art are not obviously connected.
Zayaan Khan’s exhibition “A practice in life and death” © Robyn Park-Ross
Measuring the success of art’s impact in the sustainability sector is not straightforward, but it is undeniable. “I’ve noticed that the inspiration I’m able to foster in people will come back around in the most arbitrary ways,” says Zayaan Khan, a multidisciplinary artist and PhD candidate.”I’ll have someone send an email a decade later saying a talk I gave, for example, completely changed the direction of their life.” This is the understated and long-term power of art: it sits with you.
“I definitely think that art is much more subversive and hidden,” says Zayaan. “It’s not seen as important as those other spaces.”
Detail of table presentation at Zayaan Khan’s exhibition “A practice in life and death” © Robyn Park-Ross
Amidst the statistics and reports of the world of sustainability, artists offer a reprieve. When they collaborate with scientists, data can be distilled into relatable concepts, and innovative solutions can be crafted. Planting a community nursery to inspire more green living is a good idea; arranging the plants to create a silhouette of a lion big enough to be visible from space, as instigated by Ethiopian artists in Kofele, elevates it to captivating levels.
“Artists have a very profound role to play in shaping how we think and feel and engage with the world,” says Leonie Joubert, a science writer specialising in climate and environmental collapse. “They use visual metaphors to speak to and connect with people in a non-academic way.”
Different forms of art present unique opportunities to engage and inspire. Street art is instantly accessible; its larger-than-life scale, captivating. Fictional works, such as those featured by the NPO and magazine Grist, allow us to play out narratives of hope and innovative solutions to environmental challenges. Collaborative art projects undertaken by groups or communities foster a sense of collective responsibility and belonging.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the emotion that art can evoke. “I believe that art is sacred and sublime, and artists are messengers and prophets,” says Mohamed Amine Hamouda, a Tunisian artist whose monumental columns, crafted from natural fibres often deemed as waste, inspire immediate awe. His towering silhouettes are reminiscent of factory chimneys.
It’s unlikely a statistic alone could move you to tears or action, but a well-made documentary, beautifully worded phrase or stirring painting might. Art has the unique power to transcend the constraints of words and set fire to our convictions. “Art is a real magic,” Mohamed says. “It is a valid charm that speaks all languages.”
Mohamed, who will be on exhibit at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2024, also observes how the current movement toward fibre and textile art reflects the world’s shifting mindset. Despite the availability of machinery and technology to expedite craftsmanship, artists are reclaiming traditional methods and using their hands to showcase the artistry inherent in these crafts. This movement is bolstered by the slow fashion movement where clothing creation becomes an art form aimed at combatting consumer culture.
Jean Claude Nsabimana
The pursuit of a more sustainable world transcends environmental considerations alone; it is intricately interconnected with the realms of politics, society, and economics. Artists like Jean Claude Nsabimana are able to weave these concerns together in their work. His wearable sculptures, crafted from electronic waste, offer an arresting visual of the consequences of consumerism. Shot amongst the dumping sites of Cape Town, he also call to attention the unsustainable societal and economic repercussions of this industry, particularly on the African continent. “The labour used is slave labour,” says Jean Claude. “People have to be destroyed for other people’s benefits.”
Kanaladorp Press, a Cape Town-based initiative, epitomises what it means to be sustainable by democratising the print-making process (for example this poster above) . The press is creating a system of art makers, empowering people with the skills needed to make graphic art at low cost using a method historically intertwined with the fight against injustice. Initiatives like this, combining sustainable practices with important political messages to combat the greenwashing and whitewashing, can be extremely powerful.
Beyond individual artists using sustainable materials and inspiring calls to action through their work, institutions are also stepping up. In 2023, the Swiss Institute, a renowned contemporary art establishment in New York, launched a sustainability initiative, Spore. The project integrates environmental awareness into all facets of the institution, extending beyond the artwork it houses. On its rooftop what looks like a modern sculpture houses 1,000 worms that utilise energy generated from processing the building’s waste to power a sound installation audible throughout the East Village. Repairs to the building are conducted with visible concern to avoid unnecessary waste and to to epitomise ethical frugalism.
In a digital age where it’s easy to become information fatigued, art offers hope and renews interest. As we move through the murk of environmental degradation and climate change, we know that artists will be one of the many important torchbearers needed along the way.
- Images supplied. Feature image of Mohamed Amine Hamouda. Images of Zayaan Khan’s exhibition “A practice in life and death” by Robyn Park-Ross, images of Kanaladorp Press by Nishal Robb, and others supplied without photographer’s names
- Mohamed Amine Hamouda will be exhibiting with A.Gorgi Gallery (Tunis, Tunisia) at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair which takes place from Friday 16 February to Sunday 18 February from 11am to 7pm
- See the programme here and you can see the list of participating galleries here