Climate and colonialism - Museums Association

Climate and colonialism

Sria Chatterjee says we need to confront our past to create a more just world
Sria Chatterjee
The Procession, an art installation by Hew Locke at Tate Britain, London, sets out to explore the impact of colonialism on the environment. It sees 150 figures march through the Duveen Galleries, holding banners depicting colonial buildings in Guyana, while costumes and flags bear evidence of rising sea levels, slave ships and cargo boats © TATE PHOTOGRAPHY/PHOTO JOE HUMPHRYS

I was recently at Tate Britain and, walking into the grand neoclassical space of the Duveen Galleries, was met with a monumental parade that felt at once incredibly real and riotously surreal. It was artist Hew Locke’s The Procession.

In this expansive sculptural installation, groups of figures come together, staking their claim in and making space for themselves and their stories, taking over the otherwise imposing space of the galleries.

In Hew Locke's sculptural installation at Tate, people came together to make space for themselves and their stories © TATE PHOTOGRAPHY/PHOTO JOE HUMPHRYS

One group of figures in black suits and elaborate masks and headgear rally around, their trousers ragged and marked with lines of dried salt water up to their knees. The four figures hold up a wooden pole each that connects a four-sided banner that they hold aloft. Their journey and goal are both ironic and precarious. The cloth banner is printed in colour with large photographs of colonial architecture in Guyana, where Locke was born.

Guyana, like various other post-colonial island nations, is at high risk of flooding and some of the vulnerable buildings are those established by the Dutch and British. The Dutch built their settlement behind high walls and established an intricate grid irrigation system for their plantations.
In 2019, as a result of global warming and rising sea levels, the sea broke through the walls for the first time, flooding the land with seawater and rendering the soil useless for agriculture for years to come.

The causal effect of colonial manipulation and reorganisation of land and ecosystems for commercial profit in the 18th and 19th centuries maps onto the large shifts in climate and biodiversity collapse we have been seeing for the past few decades.


Locke uses a photograph of the House of Fraser department store (known locally as the “House of a Thousand Windows”) in Guyana, which was built by the Scottish plantation-owning Fraser family near a plantation called Albion (Alba is Gallic for Scotland).

Charting the interconnected histories of British and Dutch plantation cultures, the now fragile wooden buildings stand in for a decaying Guyanese heritage that speaks to both the destruction of the land and to what a generation of Guyanese people see as “their” heritage disappearing, however conflicted its origins may be.

British artist Hew Locke frequently explores the effects of colonial exploitation on today’s ecosystem © HEW LOCKE/ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2022

This kind of conflict is redolent with so much of our reckoning with climate change, and particularly its inextricable relationship with colonialism. We have to ask ourselves what “progress” and “development” really mean.

As Guyanese historian Walter Rodney wrote, what was described as “the development of Africa” by the colonialists was really a shorthand expression for “the intensification of colonial exploitation in Africa to develop capitalist Europe”.

How did the accumulation of wealth of the western world depend on the depletion of resources and exploitation of labour somewhere else? How does this depletion, which began in the 18th century, impact the climatic and ecological effects we see rippling across the planet today?


Another cluster of figures in The Procession includes children with drums sporting wooden screens on their heads. These screens are typical of colonial Guyanese architecture. One of the drums conspicuously displays a share certificate from the Russian General Oil Corporation.

Share certificates form a crucial feature of Locke’s earlier work. He reworks and paints over original shares and bonds for now defunct companies, creating artefacts that represent fortunes made and lost at the cost of colonial subjects and territories.

One arresting figure dons a massive skirt that is made up of a share certificate and photographs of colonial architecture.

The certificate in question belonged to the West India Improvement Company established in 1889 in Jamaica, which developed the Jamaica Railway. Locke reworks the certificate with a gigantic bunch of bananas painted over a wooden figure of a bird-man spirit carved by the Taíno – Indigenous Arawak people of Jamaica.

This reworking of colonial share certificates highlights Locke’s talent for revealing European greed COURTESY HEW LOCKE/HALES GALLERY
Connecting the past and the present

Locke’s work is thick with references. While the pre-colonial bird-man spirit figure (which resides in the British Museum) references colonial loot, the bananas tell us a broader story of other riches coming to the metropole. It acts as shorthand for the monetisation of nature, the overhaul of ecosystems and the obliteration of local fruit and vegetables in favour of the strongest plant varieties.


Locke reworks the share certificates with carefully rendered and colourful maps of Africa. A gigantic bunch of bananas, skulls, and other figures stitch together a narrative across the history of early multinational companies that embodied 19th-century colonialism, monoculture cropping, plantation-building, slavery, indentured labour. In this way, Locke makes visible the dramatic conjunction between capitalism, colonialism and ecological disaster.

Locke’s artwork at Tate Britain is one of many that bring climate change and colonialism together. In 2021, We Are History, a group exhibition curated by Ekow Eshun at Somerset House, London, explored how 18th-century colonialism reshaped lives and landscapes at a global scale through plantations and the forced mass migration of people through slavery.

The British Mauritian artist Shiraz Bayjoo’s installation Dan Sa Karo Kann (In Those Cane Fields), cleverly marries the beauty we associate with the global 18th century and its affinity for the exotic objects and materials that form the fabric of European life today with some horrific realities in the East African Islands.

A visitor examins Dan Sa Karo Kann (In Those Cane Fields), 2021, by Shiraz Bayjoo, part of the We Are History exhibition at Somerset House, London © Tim Bowditch

For example, ceramics from the Coral Island series present intimate and ornate sculptural frames gesturing to bourgeois domestic life and accumulation, which turn into monstrous tiny things when you step closer. These apparently innocent objects house images of horrific colonial violence neatly sealed under their ceramic glazes.

Bayjoo repurposes imagery from the De Bry collection of voyages, a series of 25 volumes published in Frankfurt between 1590 and 1634, which contain accounts of colonial travel across India Occidentalis (present-day Americas) and India Orientalis (Africa and Asia).

These travel illustrations show the casual way that colonial violence was perpetrated. Settlers sit on giant turtles, men club flightless birds to death, while sketching landscapes of bountiful flora and fauna (including native peoples), all of which were ripe for exploitation.

The trope of the innocent object fiercely holding on to horrific histories that Bayjoo mobilises is a potent one that runs through most discussions around museums and their relationship to colonial loot and broader processes of colonial exploitation.

Museums themselves are products of colonial expansion. The Ashmolean in Oxford (Britain’s first public museum) acknowledges as much on its website. One of its founding objects, Powhatan’s Mantle, was part of an exchange of gifts between the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy and the English at Jamestown in 1608.

At Tate Britain, Locke’s The Procession subtly engages with the history of the building and its founder, the sugar refining mogul Henry Tate. While Tate was not involved in the slave trade, the links Locke seeks to make visible are more complex.

Colonialism was not a singular process. It had multiple goals, expressions, strategies and outcomes, but the seeking of new land, exploitation of natural resources, labour and the conviction that it was all a business venture remained true in all its many guises. For instance, the pressures of the plantation were so intense that by 1769 British sugar plantations had exhausted Barbardian soil and attempts were made to import richer soil from Dutch Guyana.

Powhatan’s Mantle, given to the English by an Indigenous North American chief in 1608, is one of the founding objects of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and an example of how museums are often rooted in colonial expansion © ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Archipelagos and other colonial outposts not only materially benefited Europe, but they also provided the human, botanical and biological resources and space for laboratories, experimentation, and large-scale development.

The intention here is not to point out a singular problem or “expose” a museum donor or museum. Rather it is to open up, through artworks such as Locke’s, Bayjoo’s and others, a conversation about the interconnected nature of colonial expansion and the longer history of natural and human exploitation, and acknowledge the many ways in which it lives on today.

Accepting the broader links between the monetisation of nature that kickstarted much of the current strands of ecological collapse as well as our implication in it at different levels is the first step towards plausible action. As British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman notes: “The current acceleration of climate change is not only an unintentional consequence of industrialisation. The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continually acted to engineer it.”

Making the link between our capitalist and colonial pasts and its consequences on our present and future allows us to work towards more equitable futures; futures that are capable of centring marginalised communities and knowledge systems and moving away from structures of inequality.

Art and environmental justice

Groups such as Art Not Oil, BP or not BP?, UK Tar Sands Network, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds and others have been contesting petrocapitalist corporate power and its enduring hold over public institutions such as museums and universities.

Platforms such as Culture Declares Emergency include a growing community of artists, institutions, and cultural sector actors who are trying to use cultural interventions in making transformational change to prevent the combined catastrophes of climate change, a mass extinction of vital biodiversity and a degradation of ecosystems everywhere.

The Gallery Climate Coalition is a group of London-based gallerists working towards the decarbonisation of the visual art sector and promoting zero-waste practices. Querying both the larger systemic infrastructures as well as day-to-day practices will be crucial going forward.

Looking to the past and connecting the dots helps us not only to “see” the problems but also find alternative ways to build institutions, make and curate art. The fourth Les ateliers de la Pensée at the Dakar Museum of Black Civilizations brought together artists and intellectuals to talk about an ecology of knowledge in the museum that goes beyond anthropocentric and progress-driven narratives.

Museums are spaces of discomfort, of discovering difficult histories, but they are also spaces of joy and optimism and have the capacity to create more just futures.

Sria Chatterjee is an art historian and environmental humanities scholar. She is head of research and learning at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Further reading

Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860, by Richard Grove, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney Mintz, Viking, 1985.How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972.

The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert, by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh (photographs) Steidl, 2015.

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