Research Projects & Networks

Climate & Colonialism

The Politics of Visibility

Led by Sria Chatterjee

The current climate and ecological emergency has deep roots in colonial history. The Climate & Colonialism project works towards new and interdisciplinary understandings of British visual and material culture produced around and in response to the interrelated and enduring histories of colonialism, capitalism and climate change. Climatic variability was used to categorise people living in warmer climates as “exotic” and “other”’, and climatically determined differences between human races and cultures were central to Western European self-conceptions of an inherent superiority over colonised peoples. British colonies also became frontiers of exploration, extraction and transoceanic transplantation as soils, seeds, animals and people were shipped between colonies at devastating human and ecological cost. Bringing together a range of media – including painting, sculpture, video, performance, architecture and photography – and time periods –, this project takes an intersectional approach in which overlapping systems of oppression are considered in dialogue with the past, present and future.

Celestial Meditation

Celestial Meditation, by Alberta Whittle, 2018, digital collage,121.9 x 86.32 cm

Digital image courtesy of Alberta Whittle. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and Copperfield, London

The colonial project is, in many ways, an enduring one. Art and visual culture have been tools in the evolving interrelationships between transatlantic slavery, land grabs, genocide, ecocide and the financialisation of nature that continue to shape the global present. At the same time, artistic and cultural production continue to present powerful modes of resistance to the exact same structures. The erasure of people and ecosystems has been an ongoing feature of colonial violence. Crucial to the methods of this project is the question of not only how we see but how we make visible, what we make visible and why we make things visible. While “seeing” has been historicised and theorised in art historical and visual culture discourses, what we do not see has remained entirely understudied. This project pays attention to both the visible and invisible, to who or what has been erased and the oft-obscured, longer systemic capitalist processes and complex entanglements of corporations, governments and institutions. Centring work by Indigenous, Black, postcolonial and feminist scholars, it offers tools of resistance, making visible patterns of structural violence and difficult historical trajectories in multispecies contexts that would otherwise go unnoticed.

A primary aim of this multi-year project is to provide a testing ground for transhistorical conversations and collaborations between art historians, artists and other scholarly and community groups thinking critically about colonialism and climate change.