In September 2019, I travelled from South Africa to Switzerland to start my PhD at the University of Basel. I was frazzled, not just by the weight of the undertaking, but also because I had been out of a university environment for nearly five years and this was my first time living away from my home country. From Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi to Zurich and finally to Basel, each leg of the journey offered time to get into the zone and prepare for academia. But by the time I arrived, my mindscape was so messy that I gave up, avoiding all thought to protect feelings.
Uyinene’s death sparked a movement, lighting up social media as women took to the streets, shouting #AmINext. But in Switzerland? Shouting? Forget it. Nobody does that. It was impossible to even talk about the spectacle of violence shaping South African society without the conversation devolving into a hollow expression of shock, stripped of context.
Similarly, talking about the climate crisis in the wake of the shared horror I had left at home felt just as empty. There were a bunch of climate strikes happening in Basel when I arrived in 2019, but they seemed like child’s play compared to the raison d’etre of the protests in South Africa. Thinking about designing a PhD project around environmental issues seemed so dumb when something as simple as picking up a package could get me killed. This was a debilitating despair, the curiosity-killing kind.
Arundhati Roy’s description of how various kinds of despair compete for primacy articulates well the tension between individual (research, in my case) interests and “the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.”2 But try communicating in quotes to a new supervisor, or factoring literary coping mechanisms into funding applications and you will quickly see that.
The despair doubles in tandem with the almost-physical panic that is part and parcel of all climate research. So, I put my head down and did the things necessary to keep my head above water in the beginning stages of doctoral deep seas. But a hard, cauterized lump of nerve-endings remains, the same one that throbs sometimes, resentfully glowering every time something crazy happens. As if to say, nothing matters, nobody cares, why should I?
Fast forward a year of COVID-19 craziness (what Bim Adewunmi aptly termed “a crying year”4) and I travelled once more travelled from South Africa to Switzerland with protests on the brain. This time it was October 2020, and the chaos was in Nigeria as young people took to the streets to protest the rampant brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Maybe I was better prepared, used to colleagues and friends relentlessly asking me if I was following the news. Maybe I was just distracted by this fellowship project. Maybe I was thinking differently about the value(s) of science. One thing is certain though: I followed the #EndSARS protests cocooned by art, and there was a small modicum of grace in that.
When Nigerian Armed Forces shot unarmed protesters at Lekki tollgate on 20 October, I was studying Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work, and her style of mapping emotional landscapes through video kept me company while I worked through the trauma of the news. I kept a close eye on my own emotional landscape, aided by Damilola Agbalajobi explaining why these protests are different5 and Kovie Biakola contextualizing the Lekki massacre in Nigeria’s history of resistance and revolution.6 I thought of Saro-Wiwa’s way of “making tangible the space between internal experience and outward performance”7 while rolling my eyes at the celebrity performativity highlighted by Adesuwa Aighewi.8
Amy Sall described the massacre and human rights violations happening across Africa as consequences of ‘phantom colonialism’10 which reminds me of Yvonne A. Owuor’s searing keynote address at the International Conference: Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future, 7–9 October 2020, Berlin. In her words, the address is not a speech so much as “a dirge, or an introit for a requiem, or a literary autopsy.” She lambasted the idea of a shared history, reminding instead that the forced entry of Europe into other worlds could never be anything but a horror story.
10 Available here: https://twitter.com/amy_sall/status/1318909550876106752
“Shared colonialism? Which of the thresholds of our discontent do we cross into first? Epistemic, Economic, Theological, Scientific, Conceptual, Ontological, Philosophical, Historical, Linguistic, Cultural, Militaristic, Technological, Biological, Civilizational, Imaginational, Aesthetic, Teleological, Psychological, Typological, Natural? Pathological?”11
11 Yvonne A. Owuor (2020) “Derelict Shards: The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms”.
Online keynote address given at the International Conference: Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future, 7–9 October 2020, Berlin. Available here: https://codesria.org/spip.php?article3110
All of those words are worlds, sites of curation, knowledge production, pain and pleasure. Like art and like science, they require philosophies and grammars to navigate. But they also need emotional distance, a balancing act of caring-enough-to-be-curious and not-caring-too-much. Addressing colonialism, the starting point of any climate crisis conversation, Yvonne A. Owuor says:
“Our spirits need distance to process the effect of the four centuries of your hungry-angry frenzy. We have our own, longstanding appointment with grief; the ghosts in and of our history will not let us rest. It is time for us to attend to them. We have a date with our history: we must learn how earth’s wealthiest continent, cradle and crucible of human knowledge and trade allowed itself to be bamboozled, bullied, weakened, possessed and disordered”12
For me, this project has been and continues to be a date with both discontent and despair. Writing through art towards climate, hoping that the value(s) of science can be a balm in the same way that art can be both restorative and generative. Binwe Adebayo said “the whole continent feels like one big inoperable wound.”13 It is also a grave. A crime scene. A living laboratory. The mental gymnastics required to think about environmental degradation and climate variability are not child’s play, and imagining alternatives is difficult and depressing when so much is happening all the time, from GBV to police brutality. So, following Owuor, this project has also become a dirge: “a site and space of, among other things, argument, audit and debate… a site of witness.”14 This project has been great for tracking my own knowledge production processes, but also for creating a cartography of care: from the artists that have cradled me when I was too stressed to care, the curators who guided how I think about art, the editors shuffling content into form and the writers who have articulated incomprehensible thoughts and feelings.
Deschooling: climate and art
by Sindi-Leigh McBride
“our imagination was ‘all schooled up’.” – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1973)
Deschooling aims to provide a foundation for thinking about intersectional climate issues and contemporary art together. The project presents a series of conversations with artists, curators and editors, accompanying short texts and a reference guide for further reading. Inspired by Ivan Illich’s critique of institutionalised educational systems, which recognised that “society is the result of conscious designs” that require educational opportunities that are both consciously designed and unconsciously embedded, the project similarly begins by recognising that our reliance on specialised, full-time instruction through formal schooling does not fully equip our imaginations to comprehend and respond to the climate crisis. Here, thinking with and through art towards climate is an opportunity to “find more ways to learn and teach.”
The project aims to ‘deschool’ both the climate crisis and arts criticism by exploring different approaches to engage with intersectional climate issues without those practices being reductively deemed ‘green’ or doom and gloom by asking questions like: What new ways of learning and teaching can deschool imagination? What approaches, methods and skills that can be learnt from creative practice to better communicate climate issues? How can creative practices, like arts writing, be strengthened by a deeper understanding of the climate crisis?
Focusing on contemporary art and writing from South Africa and Nigeria, Deschooling investigates approaches and ways of thinking that are free from institutional baggage or ideological expectation; the different ways that editorial, artistic and curatorial practices come together and lessons that can be learnt for exploring creative practice to develop deeper climate awareness.