I recently read the article “As the Climate Crisis Grows, a Movement Gathers to Make ‘Ecocide’ an International Crime Against Humanity” from Inside Climate News. The authors state that “international lawyers, environmentalists, and a growing number of world leaders say that ‘ecocide’ – widespread destruction of the environment – would serve as a ‘moral red line’ for the planet.” French President Emmanuel Macron and Pope Francis add that ecocide is an offense that poses a similar threat to humanity as genocide. And Pope Francis describes ecocide as “the massive contamination of air, land and water” or “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster.” The Pope has proposed making ecocide a sin for Catholics, endorsing a campaign by environmental activists and legal scholars to make it the fifth crime before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
My art practice has always focused on consciousness and what it means to be a sentient being, exploring ideas around the self, identity, and life and death. This naturally led to narratives addressing collective consciousness. Over the years, tipping points that affected my own consciousness led me towards wanting to change my personal behavior and increased my interest in the power of collective consciousness to effect bigger policy shifts to address the challenges we face for our future on planet Earth.
I started focusing on climate change and biodiversity loss in 2015 when I was faced with the possibility of Johannesburg, where I live, and other major cities in South Africa and nearby regions, experiencing a prolonged drought brought on largely by El Nino. On January 17, 2018, the city of Cape Town announced that it had reached “a point of no return” in its water supplies – something that most of us never thought possible. In Johannesburg, we watched the daily news daily in disbelief, while our own supply of water continued to dwindle. Then our local municipal water supplier declared, “Johannesburg is under Level 2 water restrictions.” Suddenly, we had to face this strange and unsettling situation where our water taps weren’t running. The possibility of having no water at all hit our consciousness, and there was a slight underlying unease as everyone rushed to fill up water tanks and buy water. The thought “the next world wars will be based on access to water” crept into my consciousness. The current El Nina weather pattern is bringing the opposite to drought –now it brings more frequent cyclones. Neighboring state, Mozambique, already struggling with extreme poverty, and a lack of adequate infrastructure and clean water supply, has in the past three years experienced three severe cyclones.
In 2016, I went to Iceland and saw snow, glaciers, and water like never before. A year earlier, the headline of a magazine article, “Land of fire and ice,” caught my eye and ignited a desire to go there. I was deeply affected by this experience, which has informed my artwork ever since. I wrote about it in my blog and posted images I took with my cellphone. The melody of Iceland is harmonized with its many waterfalls. Everywhere I looked, there were waterfalls gushing from the interior, cascading, and thundering down volcanic mountains towards the sea. The sheer power of the Gullfoss, the thundering Sejalandsfos, and the exuberant Skogafoss waterfalls, the majestic picturesque floating ice sculptures of the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon on the south eastern coast, and the Isgongin glacier tunnel on the Langjokull Glacier were beyond comprehension. I kept asking myself: What can I, an individual, do to contribute to collective behavioral change? Can my artwork add to the awareness of and conversation around climate change in a meaningful way?
An article published in Frontiers in Conservation Science in January 2021 found that “future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms – including humanity, is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” The article also states that “the science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak.”
My current work explores these challenges and is influenced by biologist David George Haskell’s statement: “We are all – trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria – pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved.” This work responds visually to scientific research around increased temperatures and its effect on oceans, coral reefs, forests, extreme floods, droughts and wildfires, and mass internal and external migration. The writer Oliver Sacks wrote: “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure!” And poet Mark Strand’s memorable words come to mind: “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” He said: “We are only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, I mean, we are – as far as we know, the only part of the universe that is self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell, I think being alive is responding.”
That pretty much sums it up for me.
(Top image: Scream (detail), 150 x 158 cm, mixed media drawing, 2020)
Tessa Teixeira was born in South Africa. She graduated from WITS University in 1991 with a BprimED, majoring in Art. She has worked in access for housing projects for lower income sectors, started a NGO and raised the money to build two schools for primary school children, and worked for The Mineworkers Development Agency, addressing rural development needs in South Africa. In 2006, she started her art practice and in 2010, she participated in short art courses in the US and UK. At the end of 2011, she returned to Johannesburg and developed her artwork focused on philosophy, climate and ecology.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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