During my childhood, there were two ways I adored spending my time more than anything: being engrossed in art and immersed in nature.
Oftentimes I would combine my passions, drawing pictures and writing stories about the natural world, or creating plays and dancing with friends out in the wilderness.
But by the time I was in secondary school and had learnt about climate change, I decided to set aside my artistic interests and instead focus on the scientific and political ways society defines and engages with our planet.
My fascination with Mother Nature and the human constructs surrounding her took me all the way to postgraduate studies, where I soaked in various theories and perspectives.
Then one day while sitting in a lecture on climate change and culture, a profound new outlook suddenly clicked into place.
Everything I had learnt about the vastly complex and interconnected web linking humanity and the Earth was grounded in a new central point of view; that culture was both the root cause of today’s environmental crisis and the solution waiting to be found.
“Culture is both the agent of change and the object of change.”
The Culture Group
What is Culture?
According to the Culture Group, the term “culture” can be defined in two ways:
1. The prevailing beliefs, values, and customs of a group; a group’s way of life.
This definition describes culture as a shared space that connects groups of people, which is vast and ever evolving like the ocean.
2. A set of practices that contain, transmit, or express ideas, values, habits, and behaviours between individuals and groups.
In contrast, this definition views culture as the ways that people express themselves and influence their shared space, like the waves of an ocean.
Throughout history, various issues such as gender and racial inequality have existed as a result of prevailing cultural beliefs and practices, which form the basis of social, economic and political life.
Over time, however, the expression of alternative cultural beliefs and behaviours that support gender and racial equality have created progress towards a more free, just and equal society.
Applying this understanding to climate change, today’s ecological crisis can be seen as a consequence of a cultural landscape that pits consumers’ needs against the health of the planet. But as more people take on values, beliefs and behaviours that support the natural world, cultural waves are generated that will eventually transform the way society interacts with nature.
At first, I was gobsmacked by this revelation. Could it be that my love of art was not so useless after all? Could it be that my plight to protect nature and champion social justice was not so hopeless, and that I had the power to effect change through my voice, my hands and my creative instincts?
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Why is Art Empowering?
Perhaps it may seem strange to some that my revelation led me straight to writing poems and admiring pictures, but to me the link between art and culture is inextricable. Art is deeply embedded within culture, both vividly reflecting and transmitting cultural values and beliefs.
Using images, sounds, symbols and metaphors that speak to people’s minds and hearts, art is able to influence people’s feelings, beliefs and understandings, thereby giving it the persuasive power to question, reinforce, change and direct cultural ideals and behaviours.
Wanting to elaborate on this idea, I interviewed Moussa Amine-Sylla, a community organiser based in Tottenham and founder of Spoken, a grassroots organisation which seeks to engage people in social and political issues through poetry, creative writing, music and spoken word.
Working with underprivileged families in his area, particularly from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, Moussa has seen first-hand how people are affected by systemic racial, social and economic inequality, and deeply understands the importance of developing platforms where they can express their thoughts, feelings, ideas, hopes, experiences and grievances.
“It is important in the process of liberation and freedom to bring those voices out and let them express themselves.”, he told me, “In the struggle of the oppressed, the first point of freedom is to stand up and speak out.”.
Explaining how alternative forms of expression such as poetry and hip-hop are suppressed from political, corporate and academic environments, Moussa emphasised the importance of embracing art and creative modes of expression to challenge systemic injustice and improve social structures, while including disenfranchised groups in the process.
“Art moves the structural systemic process, and constantly improves, evolves our society.”, Moussa said, “The creativity process challenges the status quo and the system, and moves the boundaries of what is established.”.
By providing a platform for local voices to be heard, Moussa and other grassroots cultural organisers create space for their communities to step into their power, challenge the status quo of a disempowering system and collectively move its boundaries towards a place of liberty for all.
We the Creatives
Today, art is everywhere and all around us – it is the movies we see on our screens, the images we scroll past on social media, the songs we stream online, the poetic verses in adverts we see across billboards or hear between TV shows. But who creates the majority of these cultural artifacts – is it our people or corporate interests behind them?
Despite their overwhelming influence in modern media spheres, art is not a medium that only corporate elites get to proliferate.
Art can be made by anyone, at any time and in any form, and it is up to us to consciously choose which art we consume, what cultural ideals we support and how we shape the world through our creations.
“Culture contains the seeds of resistance
that blossoms into the flower of liberation.”