Creative approach to climate change

by Shelby Pykare on


Our project Rethinking Home is focused on looking at climate change in New York and Samoa specifically, but we have participants from throughout the Pacific Islands. Climate change is impacting the entire world though and there are many people who are also engaging this issue. I decided to research other climate change related projects that have been happening throughout the Pacific Islands that were closely related to the arts because of the important role art, dance and music plays in many Pacific Island cultures. As well we have a number of creatively-minded participants on both sides of our project, so I’ve decided to highlight the creative approach to climate change in both traditional and contemporary art and dance.

Tongan anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa wrote about the role of the arts in the past and present of Pacific culture. In the past,

"arts and entertainment were integrated into community life. There was no such thing as art for art’s sake. The sense for beauty was always imprinted on objects of utility…Poetry, music and dance were mostly integrated into, and usually performed as part of, some religious or community festivals or ceremonies (Hau’ofa 1983:159)."

Though this was the case in the past as Hau’ofa explains,

"the demise of indigenous religions and their attendant rituals and ceremonies, the replacement of wood and bone tools and implements by imported factory products, and the passing away of the canoe and indigenous building designs, have meant the disappearance of many of the art forms of the islands, some of which have been revived in modified forms in recent years for commercial purposes, especially for sale to tourist (Hau’ofa 1983:166)."

However “the rich heritage from the past- of carving, designs, music, poetry and mythology- is a source of inspiration for the rising number of creative artists in the islands” (Hau’ofa 1983:166). It is these artists who are behind many of the art festivals that have been occurring in the Pacific Islands in the recent past.

When talking about the arts in the Pacific the Festival of Pacific Arts, originally the South Pacific Arts Festival, began in 1972 must be mentioned. It is this festival that has influenced many of the other Pacific Art Festivals that are taking an interest and focused approach to the issue of climate change today. As the name suggests, this festival is not tied to a particular location in the South Pacific but instead rotates throughout the islands every four years. As Cresantia Frances Koya, a senior lecturer at The University of the South Pacific, wrote the South Pacific Arts Festival, “provides a platform for Pacific Island communities to participate in cultural and art displays both heritage and contemporary” (2010:6).

The 2010 King Tide Festival was titled “Tuvalu E! The Tide is High” which, as the name suggests, was specifically aimed at highlighting the importance of Tuvaluan culture and the dangerous position climate change has placed the country in. For many the country of Tuvalu is a key example of the dramatic effects climate change can have on the low-laying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. The threat of rising sea levels mean the likely loss of entire islands, such as those that make up the country of Tuvalu, which raises the question:

What happens to a culture after the land associated with it’s physical disappearance?

Thus the King Tide Festival, “aimed at raising awareness about what would be lost if Tuvalu were submerged by the rising sea level,” through highlighting traditional dance, song, story-telling and other traditional activities (Koya 2010:7).

The final festival I will mention was began by the Fiji Arts Council in Suva, Fiji in 2008 after the Council was inspired by the Pacific Arts Festival held there previously. This festival was the Wasawasa Festival or Festival of Oceans. The word wasawasa refers to the ocean in the Fijian language. Unsurprisingly the ocean plays an important role in Fijian culture and stewardship of the ocean and the Fijian environment was a key component to the Wasawasa Festival. Many of Fiji’s contemporary arts such as poetry, sculpture, murals, dance, installation pieces, programs for children and adults interested in learning more about their local flora and fauna, are also highlights for visitors.

The Wasawasa Festival, “engages collaboration between environmental, community and art groups with NGOs, regional and international agencies and organizations” (Koya 2010:7). This is very similar mentality to the Rethinking Home project we are currently in the midst of in New York and Samoa as we connect the experiences of individuals with a much larger community for the purpose of education and awareness. Likewise visitors are encouraged to be active participants in the festival where they have the chance to “learn about the nature that exists in the centre of Suva, write stories about [their] experiences with the world around [them], get information about how [they]can reduce [their] impact on the environment, or learn more about the flora and fauna that makes Fiji unique” (Letila Mitchell by Matelita Ragogo 2008).

Whether an island in the Pacific Ocean like Samoa, Fiji or Tuvalu, or in the Atlantic Ocean like Manhattan, Long Island or Staten Island, the issue of climate change is a serious one. As more people begin taking action and looking for ways to become involved the various art festivals in the Oceania can serve as a model for others. They engage individuals through art and entertainment while raising awareness and educating local people about what they can do in these situations. This is also our goal for the Rethinking Home project as we work with two different island communities facing a global issue. Check back in with us as we begin working on our second set of workshops coming up!

Hau‘ofa, E. 1985. The Future of Our Past. In The Pacific Islands in the Year 2000, edited by Robert C. Kiste and Richard A. Herr, 151-169. Working Paper series [1985]. Honolulu, Hawaii: Pacific Islands Studies Program, Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Koya, Cresantia Frances. In the Absence of Land, All we have is Each Other. At Dreadlocks: Oceans, islands and skies in the year 2010.

Shelby Pykare is a member of "Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa," a Museum Connect Project sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museums.