The art of conservation
I’ve been chasing ‘waterlust’ for as long as I can remember.
From catching my first wave, seeing my first shark, scuba diving on ancient coral reefs in remote locations far from home, to guiding friends and family halfway around the world to experience oceanic behemoths such as humpback whales, oceanic manta rays and whale sharks for their first times, the ocean has provided me with a lifetime of powerful and memorable experiences that I am forever grateful for. As a result, I have pursued activities and careers that incorporate the ocean to some extent.
My grandfather had an interest in photography but as more of a hobby than a passion. After retirement, he traveled extensively internationally documenting his experiences and sharing them with me. As a child, I had a vivid imagination and his images would transport me to faraway exotic destinations that I longed to experience. For my birthday one year, he gave me my first camera and from that moment on, I was hooked. There’s something incredibly magical, romantic and fleeting about capturing a moment in time. Over time, it only made sense to marry passions and eventually, I took a camera underwater to capture incredible moments so few are able to experience. Photography, especially underwater photography, became a therapeutic outlet in my, at times, chaotic existence. When looking through the viewfinder, waves washing over me or at 100 feet below the surface, time tends to slow down, the noise in my head disappears and I find myself centred and present. There is peace and tranquillity that both the ocean and photography can provide a person.
For several years, I lived in Asia documenting the illegal wildlife trade. In 2010, while on assignment, I uncovered Asia’s largest industrial shark finning operation. Seeing an animal I deeply care about destroyed on such a commercial level for nothing more than short-term profit caused a shift inside me. While I understand the importance of documenting the reality of the issue, at the end of the day, you have to give people hope. Images of death and destruction can only go so far. As Jacques Cousteau famously said, “people protect what they love” and I fully subscribe to his words. By utilising art and creativity to help save our oceans, we have the opportunity to connect with people on an emotional level that inspires positive action.
I grew up in a family of artists, so creativity was always encouraged as a way to express oneself as well as problem-solving. As a foreigner in Asia, it was challenging to encourage people to change tradition and culture. Art was the perfect vehicle through which to connect with people in an honest and thought-provoking manner. For centuries, public art has been utilised as a platform and communication tool for social, political and environmental issues. So, at PangeaSeed Foundation, we’re not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but organising and mobilising artists and creatives on a large-scale level to address pressing ocean environmental issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing through public art and activism. Or as I like to call it “ARTivism”.
ARTivism lends itself immensely for science communication, to visually translating abstract, non-tangible facts and realities, and connecting with non-experts wherever they are. These pressing environmental issues are not sexy and there is a communication gap between the scientific community and the general public. Art can be the bridge between the two, helping to stoke better ocean stewardship and to jumpstart individuals and communities into positive action for our oceans. Scientific jargon and data on charts can be challenging for the general public to digest. People are so consumed with their daily lives and trying to stay afloat that issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss can get lost in the noise. That’s where art, especially public art, can step in. I believe a drop of paint can create great change and by collaborating with the scientific and ocean research communities to translate these facts and data points via public art in a tangible way, we have an opportunity to engage individuals on a human level helping to inspire better ocean stewardship.
Back in 2012, while traveling in Sri Lanka, a hotspot for the overfishing of manta and Mobula rays, we worked with the local chapter of Manta Trust to paint our very first murals that showcased mantas in a different light than what the fishermen were accustomed to. Killing these magnificent rays and selling their gill rakers for use in Chinese medicine was a lucrative way for them to feed their families in otherwise unyielding, overfished fishing grounds. As the artists painted the mural, villagers became curious and started asking questions about the artwork and its message. We had accomplished our goal of entering into a dialogue about a heavily contested subject in a non-confrontational way. Up until that point, we had focused primarily on curating group gallery shows related to ocean conservation. The experience we had in Sri Lanka inspired us to venture into the public space and take our oceans into streets across the globe, where everyday people live their everyday lives. We meet people where they are at. Today, the Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans program is the PangeaSeed Foundation flagship program, established because we saw a need to engage with communities on a broader level to address the pressing marine environmental issues affecting our and future generations. The goal of the Sea Walls program is to foster emotional connections to and drive positive action for our ocean. The large-scale murals and artwork installations we create have the ability to disrupt and transform streetscapes in an inclusive manner. The beauty of art is that it transcends boundaries; it is a universal language that doesn’t discriminate based on one’s culture, religion, gender, or socioeconomic status.
I think that fostering a culture of environmental stewardship within local populations on the frontlines of places where conservation is a challenge needs to be the foundation of higher-level problem-solving. ‘Think globally, act locally’ isn’t just a catchy tagline. In conservation, one size definitely doesn’t fit all, so making people feel like they’re part of the process, listening to them, and taking into account local variables is paramount. We’ve found that each location has its own ways of going about things, cultural beliefs, and underlying assumptions that we need to understand and appreciate first. Once we invite community stakeholders into the process, the outpouring of support is truly humbling.
Over the past four years, on an all-volunteer basis, we have created over 375 murals and public art installations, in collaboration with more than 300 artists in 15 countries. From the polar bear capital of the world to the coral triangle, we’ve taken public art into communities where it has never been created before. At our core, we hope that despite our lives being oversaturated by clicks, swipes, likes, and tweets, the artworks we create stop people in their tracks, prompting them to take a moment to reflect, perhaps question their own actions or simply peak their interest in learning more about issues such as coral bleaching or overfishing. The change we create may not be as tangible as removing debris from a coastline or breeding heat-resistant coral but I’d like to think that the emotional responses public art can trigger can lay the foundation for individuals and entire communities to be moved into action. After all, for most people reading this, there was a moment in time when something or someone moved them to care for the ocean. Those moments of clarity don’t usually come from a set of data points on a chart, but from an experience that touches your heart.
I believe there is still some doubt around if or how public art can push the needle in a positive direction when it comes to environmental change. Most people in positions of power, especially governments and institutions, tend to seek out scientific, data-driven solutions over those that tap into people’s feelings. At PangeaSeed Foundation, we’re science nerds at heart but find that scientific research and its jargon tend to fall short when it comes to pulling on our heartstrings. It is through storytelling that we make sense of our world, so presenting visually compelling, emotive stories of what is happening to our oceans seems like an important part of the process. I’m confident that, with time, art’s role in change-making will be more legitimised.
The overarching story we tell through all of our projects is that the future of our oceans and our coastlines is up to us, those who call these towns home who spend their time playing in and earning a living from the sea. Wherever we go, the legacy of these murals remains in the hands of the community, and by revitalising streetscapes that become part of people’s day-to-day experience, we’re putting ownership and stake back into the people’s hands.
When I started the organisation, the conservation arena was quite polarised, either being conservative or militant, without much in between. Neither approach was appealing to me and if I was going to dedicate my time and skills to these issues, I wanted to inspire my community, friends, and family to see the oceans how I do. There are very few people who have the opportunity to put on a mask and see what’s beneath the waves and to witness its beauty and fragility. Unfortunately, the discourse around marine conservation oftentimes takes place in privileged circles, conference rooms, and the world of academia. Much of the population is left out from these very important conversations that everyone should be part of.
I personally try my best to remain positive despite the mounting pressures affecting our oceans. I do feel we’re on the brink of a cultural shift where people and communities are starting to take steps necessary to better protect the environment. Social media has connected people in a way we have never seen before, helping to spread awareness, share information and spotlight conservation efforts around the world, which directly inspires others to take action. Though the damage already done is incredibly significant, there is still much worth fighting for. The ocean is the life-support system of our planet and without healthy oceans, life on land is impossible. We must remain optimistic and focus on collaborating for the greater good. For generations, public art has been used as a vehicle for revolutions, as a voice for the voiceless and as a driver of change. It is democratic, open-source and free. This makes it the perfect medium to meet people where they are, to start a conversation, and to unite us, just as the ocean unites all life.
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