Art as Protest: Creativity to Address Climate Change Complexity

Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a critical moment in history

April 7, 2020

The UNDP Accelerator Labs (AccLabs) have been established as a new service offering from UNDP with the aim to transform our approach to delivering development by enhancing inclusivity, surfacing local, user-lead solutions, and learning to accelerate impact. AccLab teams from 9 African countries had the opportunity to participate in the African Crossroads event in Kenya, which brought together creatives from across industries and forms of art to unpack, sense, and share on complex development challenges.

At the conference, the AccLabs ran a participatory session using issue mapping as a methodology. Issue Mapping is a problem analysis tool for conceptualising leading drivers of a complex issue in a collaborative manner. The methodology is ‘idea-inclusive’ and with a diversity of voices can surface new and valuable insights. The issue chosen by the participants was Climate Change, and running this exercise with artists and creative thinkers produced interesting lessons regarding development planning.

In case you haven’t heard…

Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a critical moment in history. Climate Change is a threat multiplier, negatively impacting on inequality and poverty, and diminishing any development gains made in the past. Responding to the rate, scale and complexity of Climate Change requires urgent and expanded action. The United Nations have called for a “Decade of Action” – a global effort by all people on the planet to act in pushing for the required transformations that will be necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Tackling Complexity with Creativity

When running participatory processes to unpack the complexity of Climate Change, often the most common drivers offered are a lack of technical solutions – “we need government to supply cheap wind power”, “we should have household-based solar energy”, “we need technology that can solve the plastic issue”. What these processes have failed to surface is the interconnected and systemic nature of complex challenges, as well as the key driving causes.

In contrast, the group of artists and creatives at the African Crossroads highlighted far more systemic issues as the drivers of climate change. Instead of wind power, they spoke of power; instead of solar, they spoke of the moral corruption of leaders; instead of technological quick-fixes, they spoke about the damage done by capitalism and western value systems. As the issue mapping process is driven by participants, the different outcomes were the result of the different group of contributors - all of whom were creatives.

Art as Protest

At one point in the event (on a completely different topic) the facilitator said “Graffiti is protest. No matter what it says, it is protest”. This made us reflect on whether all art is protest in some way, and whether artists and creatives are inherently protesting against a system as it is not always as accepting or open to their ‘different’ way of seeing the world.

Source: Banksy’s works as a form of protest art

E.E Cummings wrote a piece giving advice to young students where he said, “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” James Baldwin called this “the artists struggle”.

We don’t want to generalise or label, but we do want to appreciate the often revolutionary nature of creativity and creatives, and what this can bring to development practice. As Donella Meadows found, one of the deepest leverage points for systems change is the mind set or paradigm out of which the system arises. Paradigms are the sources of systems and constitute society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. In order to achieve equality and sustainability we will need a world that works in very different ways – who better to help us design this world than those who struggle against the status quo and often have very different mental models?

Protest, activist and resistance art has a history as long as art itself. Recently we have seen incredible examples from across the world where artists are using their works to protest and raise awareness about Climate Change.

A group of activists from the Red Rebel Brigade performing at a Climate Change demonstration by Extinction Rebellion.

Greenpeace Philippines created an art installation of a beached whale made from ocean plastic to raise awareness about pollution.

Justin Brice Guariglia’s work at the Stor King show “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change”.

Closer to home, African creatives are also using their art to hold a mirror to society on the values and behaviors that have led to the degradation of, and disregard for, our environment.

Jo Voysey uses medicine as a medium to expose the violence and mistreatment of animals by humans and “draw attention to the ignorance and disregard for life in general”.

Penny Siopis’ work “Warm Water Imaginaries” reflecting on Climate Change.

John Hillary Balyejusa, a poet and cinematographer, designed this image for #RiseForClimate to “expose the danger that fossil fuels pose to our agricultural society”.

The Kabarole Research and Resource Centre organizes the Annual Street Art Festivals on Climate Change in Uganda.

Calling Creatives

One of the core issues the AccLabs will be focusing on is Climate Change. For example, as the authors of this blog we are working on the Food, Water and Energy Nexus in South Africa and in Deforestation in Uganda.

In our experience, it is unusual for artists and creatives to be included in the participatory process used in development practice. As development practitioners in the UNDP we have to broaden who we work with when unpacking complexity and searching for solutions. In the conceptualisation, design and implementation of development programming we need to actively include those who are not the ‘usual’ suspects, draw on the mental models of those who see the world differently, and stop only listening to The Experts.

We would like to issue a special call to the artists and creatives out there to join us on the journey of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to tackle Climate Change we will need the never-heard-of-before ideas, voices and solutions. The AccLabs have landed, and our doors (and minds) are open…

To get involved, please email or