On racism and environmentalist practice – reflections on a journey

by Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens

Please note that we acknowledge the complex structural barriers to inclusion faced by people due to class, ableism, educational and financial privilege, prejudice related to gender and sexuality and so on, but in this article we have chosen to focus on and discuss racism and white privilege as a formative societal influence.

The authors of this essay, the ‘we’ referred to here, are Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens. We are white cisgender British women in our 40s, all educated to university level, all with children, all working in the arts. In 2011 we co-founded an environmental project called Lost Species Day and have dedicated a lot of time and love to the initiative over the years. In more recent years, this energy has become more reflective and critical of the movement and questioning of our work and its place in it. We have written this essay because, aware of the scale and rapidity of environmental degradation and its uneven impacts on people and places, we want to talk about white supremacy and how it plays out in the environmental movement. We hope that it will be useful to anyone concerned about climate and ecological breakdown, wanting to understand the history and drivers of this breakdown, and/or wanting to make links with social and racial justice movements. It is offered as a resource for people restless or dissatisfied with the language and practices of contemporary mainstream environmentalism. It is written in solidarity to frontline environmental and human rights defenders, with love for everyone working for bold action on fossil fuels and extractivism. It is inspired by and arises from ideas, actions, invitations and initiatives by people of colour and Black people.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS or Lost Species Day), now in its ninth year, is coming up again on November 30th. It is an unfunded initiative, an invitation to people to hold events exploring biodiversity loss on or around this date each year. It started as a demonstration outside parliament – in May 2010, as part of an overnight climate vigil, a few friends created a pop-up installation of a graveyard for extinct species on a patch of grass opposite the Houses of Parliament. We were fed up with feeling helpless and excluded from environmental policy. We wanted to make work that spoke to the scale of the ecological problems we were witnessing. 

After the climate vigil, we made a play, Funeral for Lost Species, in a real graveyard in Brighton. We imagined it was a graveyard for extinct species and that we were a team of celestial funeral directors, responsible for ensuring every species got a suitable send-off, thus ensuring the continuity of existence. It parodied the mainstream environmental movement and articulated Eurocentric culture’s de-sacralising drive, and the clash between science and spirituality in the Eurocentric paradigm. Mostly, though, we were glad to make a space for contemplation of biodiversity loss, and when the project ended we wanted to carry on doing this. 

It turned out that some people were making a memorial to extinct species on a hill in Sussex at that time. It felt apt to work with them, to continue exploring how to make rituals for the Anthropocene. We held the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species in November 2011, with a lot of support and interest. A supporter designed us a logo inspired by the extinction symbol, which was based on the image of an hourglass inside the circle of the earth. 

RDLS emerged as part of a wave of artist-led projects exploring the theme of mass extinction and collapse in the UK. Something important was being tapped into and explored, but the networks we were aware of consisted largely of white privileged people confronting the failings of capitalism and consumerism without including a proper analysis of the racialised underpinnings and workings of those power structures – an omission that could only come from a lack of awareness or care about how structural racism punishes some and privileges others.

After a few years, we saw that most Lost Species Day events were taking place in Europe and North America, and realised that an initiative like this, despite seeming imperative to us, unless examined, was largely irrelevant, particularly for people who are:

  • economically marginalised 
  • struggling for survival
  • on the front lines of climate breakdown
  • affected by conflict and colonialism
  • queer and trans people facing hate crimes, and other people facing human rights violations
  • in prison or at risk of imprisonment
  • facing persecution by the state and corporations
  • living lives that are entwined with those of endangered species and places

The list went on. We realised that our purported inclusive approach was in fact exclusionary due to its lack of an analysis of structural racism and classism. All are welcome!, went the cry – but these words, predicated on privilege, were hollow. Rather late in life, we realised that our brand of environmentalism was a product of racial and class privilege – and worse, that its ‘colour blindness’ colluded in the ongoingness of white supremacy. Privilege had led us to assume it was acceptable to focus on biodiversity loss without building this work on a foundation of solidarity and anti-racist practice. But as environmental communicator Susuana Amoah puts it, “white supremacy and colonialism are fundamental causal factors in the climate emergency”

Might remembrance for lost species contribute to cultural erasure? Arguably, focusing on the stories of extinct species without studying and discussing concomitant harms to people and cultures perpetuates white environmentalism’s huge history of cultural erasure and genocidal acts. Environmentalism is not exempt from racism. We finally recognised the all-subsuming power of whiteness, and the rule of white supremacy as a hegemonic ordering force globally and in our psyches. Canada-based scholar Audra Mitchell’s writing on white tears for extinct species made for reading that was hard but that we were instinctively drawn to. We made commitments to: 

  • turn to Black, indigenous, decolonial and people of colour activists, organisations, artists and academics for wisdom
  • pay attention to and amplify the voices of the people living through entwined genocides and ecocides
  • make the links between, rather than separate, the stories of harms to people and non-humans
  • remember that hurt feelings are not actual injuries, that as the beneficiaries of white supremacy we have a duty to speak and act on racism from our position of safety
  • ask ourselves daily, as scholar Imani Robinson invites us to, What are we going to do today to create the world we want to live in?

On Extinction Rebellion

We have watched Extinction Rebellion grow without building a critique of white supremacy into its central environmental messaging or organising structure. As part of a strategy that uses the rhetoric of emergency to reach the mainstream, this has been amazingly successful, and XR have done what they set out to do in terms of shifting the Overton Window on the climate emergency, and creating a mass movement – a colossal and vital achievement at a time when the speed of environmental change is escalating dizzyingly. There are doubtless many committed people working hard within Extinction Rebellion to address structural racism in its language and tactics, and to articulate a language of solidarity with impacted communities. But their efforts are not reflected in the public demands or practices of the organisation, which adopts – or co-opts – the tactics of the Civil Rights movement whilst maintaining majority white leadership, pro-police politics, and no demands or strategy for dismantling structural racism. Its language of emergency trumps inclusivity of process and depth of listening. 

Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) / Wretched of the Earth (WOTE) activist Joshua Virasami describes the historic and contemporary lack of connection between animal rights / environmental activism and human rights / social justice movements as “tragic”, and invites neighbourliness and the centring of solidarity and inclusion as core practices in environmental action. When white people turn up they can have a massive impact. White people in the UK are the demographic majority, with confidence born of freedom from exposure to micro-aggressions, fear of false accusations, arrest, overt violence, risk of death and countless disadvantages due to systemic racism. This and other aspects of privilege are very useful in service to justice. As of yet, too little support has been lent to the efforts of movements led by people on the front lines of environmental disaster, surviving multiple apocalypses over centuries of colonialism and exploitation. The ongoing disconnection from, and failure to honour, these movements is due to structural racism and internalised white supremacy, invisible to the beneficiaries, ruinous for the survivors and the victims. 

The mass silence and large absence of white people from movements that integrate work for racial justice does everyone a disservice. Without the warping lens of racism, it is obvious that movements for social change must centre and be led by those who are most affected, like the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and countless campaigns by frontline environmental protectors. The people most vulnerable to harms are the people most knowledgeable about those harms, experientially as opposed to ideologically. The white-dominated environmental movement must learn from other parts of the movement. It must centre and amplify the voices and perspectives of people with direct lived experience of climate-related harms. 

XR is an infant movement that has become powerful very quickly, with the help of a lot of funding and influential supporters. Its senior team needs to move quickly to incorporate a commitment to racial justice within its practice and core demands. A movement that ignores or minimises its responsibility to address white supremacy risks: 

  • Alienating diverse cultural groups and struggling to make up this lost ground later
  • Overshadowing and potentially diverting funding and support from pre-existing work by other activist groups
  • Intensifying danger for minority groups, as the absence of non-white perspectives in organising spaces creates more space for negative projections. Messages about scarcity and lack can feed prejudice about Black people and people of colour as ‘foreigners’ and ‘others’, and increase abuse and violence. 

Perhaps most significantly, actions by an environmental movement that does not address racism can generate a false sense of hope. Campaigns that do not incorporate social justice as foundational will not change the system in the likely event of inadequate governmental action on climate breakdown. Arguably, Extinction Rebellion’s politics and structures reproduce the racism on which capitalism depends. To quote Wretched of the Earth

Climate change has not happened by a sequence of small missteps; the economic structures that dominate us have been brought about by ongoing colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit. For centuries, racism, sexism and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld, and have shaped the conditions we find ourselves in.”

Social justice must be the backbone of the environmental movement

With a focus on quality of process rather than the default white activist mode of urgency and panic comes curiosity, and a stepping-back from righteous anger into more reflective modalities that unpick assumptions about how to make change. Adrienne maree brown’s work on Emergent Strategy is inspiring here. 

Having explored some of the ways in which white people use structural power consciously and unconsciously to ignore, undermine and erase initiatives led by Black people and people of colour, let’s explore how white people can consciously and strategically utilise racial privilege to serve and give power to frontliners. A few questions for campaigns and projects:

  1. Are there already existing Black, indigenous and people of colour-led initiatives doing similar work to the project you are undertaking? Could you be putting your energy, time, platforms, money and other resources into their cause? Or at least listening to their advice? If not, why not? Suzanne Dhaliwal has written extensively about this. 
  2. Are your strategies adding to threats to the safety of people of colour? Do they support migrant solidarity? Are they inclusive? Who do they exclude, and how? 
  3. Who is on the front lines of your efforts? Where are they in your movement?  Are their voices audible? Are they part of the leading team? If not, how might you work to change this? 

Making space for lost species: remembering extinct species, cultures and places

These questions bring us back to Lost Species Day, and how and whether to move forward with it. Can this project be decolonised, or do its roots in white privilege mean that it’s conceptually too flawed to ever be truly anti-racist? We don’t know yet, but we pledge to:

  • Research our ancestors’ relationships with the places where we live, and use RDLS as a way to reconnect with our local ecosystem
  • Use RDLS as an educational opportunity for people who want to learn more about the reality of accelerating global biodiversity collapse through an anti-racist lens
  • Promote RDLS as a space for emotional engagement with the devastating effects of colonialism and the extinction and climate crises
  • Put energy into collaborating with and growing other days of celebration and remembrance. For example, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Trans Day of Remembrance, Black History Month.
  • Offer resources and service to Black and people of colour-led activist groups born from a drive for justice, doing explicitly decolonial and anti-racist work. For example, Black Lives Matter UK , Wretched Of The Earth.

We hope – and we would welcome others’ views on this – that a recurring day of ecological and bio-cultural remembrance can be of service and of social relevance at this time of multitudinous apocalypses and structural harms. It can: 

  • Make spaces for remembering histories that are at continual risk of erasure and being forgotten
  • Offer a way for nature lovers into conversation about racism and its links with environmental harms
  • Offer space for exploring the concept of DIY rituals, and encouragement for people attempting the work of connection whilst being conscious of colonialism and cultural appropriation
  • Articulate the importance of the work of facing the grief of ecological severance, and make links between this and the grief of inhabiting inherited structures of white supremacy 
  • Point towards possibilities for personal, interpersonal and cultural healing
  • Articulate the fact that all people and beings constitute a living connected system – there is no ‘other’.

We have removed the original Lost Species Day logo from the RDLS platforms because of its visual connection with the extinction symbol which is now synonymous with Extinction Rebellion. We are grateful to N.Puttapipat and Matt Stanfield for allowing us to use their logo while we explore possibilities for a new logo that better articulates our aspiration that Lost Species Day emphasises the interconnectedness of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures and ecological communities, and promotes the message that whilst these losses are rooted in violent and discriminatory governing practices, the day provides an opportunity for participants to make or renew commitments to all who remain.

Persephone Pearl 

Rachel Porter 

Emily Laurens

October 20th 2019

With many thanks to colleagues and Lost Species Day project supporters who have advised on and helped edit this essay

RESOURCES

ONCA resources on environmental justice: https://onca.org.uk/category/environmental-justice/

Mary Annaïse Heglar on racism, memory and POC-led movements: https://medium.com/s/story/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0

Audra Mitchell’s blog: https://worldlyir.wordpress.com/

Megan Hollingsworth on anticipatory grief: https://soundcloud.com/extinction-witness/introduction-to-joy-giving-practice-rdls-2016

Wretched of the Earth May 2019 letter to XR: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/an-open-letter-to-extinction-rebellion/

Emergent Strategy Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/emergentstrategyideationinstitute/

Ibram Kendi on redefining racism: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/the-fight-to-redefine-racism

Amélie Lamont’s Guide to Allyship: http://www.guidetoallyship.com/

Robin DiAngelo on inadequate responses to racism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jin7ISV85s

Julian Brave NoiseCat on racist history of environmental movement: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/bjwvn8/the-environmental-movement-needs-to-reckon-with-its-racist-history

Brighton Migrant Solidarity website: https://brightonmigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/

October 2019 news on student-led campaign to decolonise higher education: https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2019/10/18/uk-higher-education-must-be-decolonised-students-warn/

Gentle/Radical, Wales-based artist-led project connecting community, locality and social justice: Gentle/Radical 

Stop Glorifying John Muir – by Erin Monahan

This article and image are reproduced with the author’s permission from Terra Incognita Media. The piece was published there in March 2019.

It’s Actually Not Complicated At All

“Separate the art from the artist.” “Everybody is complicated.” “They were a product of their time.” “He was a complicated guy.” “It’s complicated.”

These comments come up frequently when we talk about the truth of those who our society have lauded and held in high esteem as heroes or geniuses. These are all white-centring sentiments that are triggered by white fragility. We see this trend of protecting men like John Muir, Louis C.K., or Harvey Weinstein, or Edward Abbey, or Charles Bukowski, to name only a few, yet I could go on — forever — because the list of white men who abuse their power is exhaustive and exhausting. To know that these men write our history, decide what is included in a “canon” of literature, is deeply, painfully, exhausting because it skews the past to plow a narrative fit for ongoing colonization, and allows white men to keep hoarding power. Uplifting these men as “heroes” and exclusively shelving their stories, excludes and discounts the myriad lived experiences and perspectives of womxn, femmes, trans, non-binary folx, Black, Indigenous, People of Color who were contemporaries of these men, and who would tell you a very different story.

A surge of discussion has been happening in the outdoor industry about John Muir’s complicity in the dispossession of Indigenous communities heavily due to the work that Indigenous Women Hike (IWH) has been doing to encourage folx to “Rethink the Wild.”

“Rethink the Wild” is IWH’s t-shirt and awareness campaign. The t-shirt illustration is a classic image of Muir sitting, one leg crossed over the other, leaning over his walking stick, but this time with bloody hands, and a quote that reads, “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness.”

When preparing to go public with this illustration, Jolie Varela, the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress, due to the inevitable backlash from those who prefer to keep things hushed when it comes to the impacts of ongoing colonization, and the way in which our environmental “heroes” play a huge role. Varela shared the illustration with this caption:

“The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is absent.’ The American idea of wilderness did not exist, it had to be created.

Indigenous people have always been a part of the land. We’ve always existed in spaces that American history has written us out of. National Parks were created on Treaty Lands. ‘Great’ American conservationists fought to preserve their idea of wilderness— which meant Indian Removal by any means. This meant dishonoring treaties.

This art is meant to start a conversation. Profits from this shirt design will go toward our efforts to travel with our Indigenous relatives in Peru. In the midst of the government shutdown, National Parks are being desecrated. Indigenous homelands are being desecrated. But is it any wonder when we consider how these lands came to be known as public lands in the first place? To move forward we must acknowledge this sad and violent history. We need to take a deeper look at ‘Great American Heroes’ like John Muir. We must no longer be complicit in the erasure of Native peoples from these spaces. We must Rethink the Wild.”


John Muir visited Ahwahnee (Yosemite) for the first time in 1868, ten years before the Bannock War, which took place in 1878. But when Muir arrived to the Sierras, forced Indigenous removals were already under way and John Muir was aiding and abetting it with his writing. John Muir very much knew that indigenous people were fighting for their lives and being forced into internment camps — what we now call reservations. In John Muir’s case his contemporaries included Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute author, activist and educator. A couple decades after his first time in the Sierras, “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” written by Zitkala-Sa [aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin] (1876-1938) was published. This story details how indigenous youth were forced to assimilate to white culture and worship Christianity. Zitkala-Sa was very much against the eradication of indigenous culture and language. Harriet Jacobs who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In 1868, the same year John Muir first arrived in Ahwahnee (Yosemite Valley), Elizabeth Keckley published her memoir Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A few years earlier in 1855, Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter. As an assistant to her father’s extensive anti-slavery activities, Brown’s writing was no doubt crucial in Black liberation and exposing the machinery of white supremacy.

Many like to excuse John Muir as just a “product of his times,” but this comes up short, not only because it’s never acceptable to aid and abet structures of oppression, but also because there were ample people bringing to light the violence of slavery and colonization. John Muir knew what was going on and he didn’t care. This is hard for us white people to accept because it means that we have to not only “Rethink the Wild,” but rethink everything that we believe in and have built our identities around, and maybe even rethink some tattoos we got, or Instagram handles we created. There’s no gentle way around it. Worshipping Muir needs to stop. It’s time to rip the band-aid off.

Who Defines What is “Natural”? Who “Naturally” Belongs?

In Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney shares that,

“…we have collectively come to understand/see/envision the environmental debate as shaped and inhabited primarily by white people. And our ability to imagine others is colored by the narratives, images, and meanings we’ve come to hold as truths in relation to the environment….

In the case of race and the environment, it’s not just who we imagine has something valuable to say. These assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions are at the very foundation of our environmental thinking, how we define the ‘environment,’ and how we think of ourselves in relationship with the environment. Who do we see? What do we see?”

White people have always decided what is “natural,” as well as who “naturally” belongs and who doesn’t. John Muir did not do “some powerful work for conservation and parks.” He co-founded the Sierra Club and worked to ensure that Ahwahnee became Yosemite National Park — these structures are tools that maintain power for a few (white people, particularly white men), as well as perpetuate gatekeeping (the practice of limiting and controlling resources). National Parks are active tools in ongoing indigenous genocide.

A few days after launching Rethink the Wild, Varela shared with Indigenous Women Hike’s Instagram account an image of the book Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence. She wrote:

“For my Indigenous folx, this was an emotional read. I was brought to tears more than a few times. This is obviously a heavy subject but as a Native woman wanting to learn more about ‘American Conservation’ this is a good place to start.

The book is pretty dense, but interesting. Anyone who recreates and visits National Parks needs to read this book. Dispossessing the Wilderness highlights the removal of Natives from Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks.”

In Dispossessing the Wilderness, David Spence goes into detail about how the National Parks were marketed and sold to white audiences as vacation spots to “get away from it all.” To get away from, you know, the buzzing, mundane, chaotic, stressful, anxiety-inducing, apocalyptic, capitalist hellhole we created for ourselves — we all need a break sometimes. In order to selfishly save our mental health we created “wilderness” a construct entirely concocted out of the white imagination to rationalize our greed, industrial growth and expansion. “Wilderness” functions as an important tool that was pushed forward by the poster-boys of the romantic period like Thomas Cole, George Catlin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville — John Muir loved these guys. They were the architects of what white America salivates over today: idealized uninhabited landscapes.

A Non-Consensual Fantasy

Why this obsession with uninhabited, when uninhabited spaces have never even been a thing? This isn’t the first time we projected this anti-indigenous falsehood. This fantasy extends back to our fantasies of exploration and manifest destiny, when settlers first came to the shores of Turtle Island (what we now call the United States). Because we were feeling the detrimental physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects of capitalism, the gender binary, and our self-imposed oppressive hierarchies, we sought an invention of untouched land that was never actually untouched. But in our twisted white minds we get off on non-consensual fantasies. Intergenerational trauma lives in our bodies because we are the descendants of colonizers and slave-holders — those who imposed the violence of non-consent, or in other words, rape culture. We have inherited the position of the oppressor, which means that we need to seek healing for ourselves and our minds. All white people need to heal from our internalized white supremacy. We are only causing harm to ourselves and others if we are not actively working on this daily.

The Earth doesn’t need “saving” – it needs to be left alone. We need to stop projecting our colonizer narratives onto the Earth and its people. What drives white environmentalism is also what drives the non-profit industrial complex. White people have generational wealth, resources, power, and money, and therefore, the ability to create non-profits under the guise of helping and working towards “sustainability.”  But the only thing sustaining is that those who need the resources the most remain in poverty, and those who have the money remain in power. Really, really rich men thrive on the reliance of the poor.

The answer to all of this is not complicated, but quite simple: white people, we need to start giving up our power, doing away with hierarchy in our organizations, and focusing on equitable outcomes for all. This may be a scary idea because it means changing everything about our lives, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Giving up power means being in community with each other, building relationships instead of power dynamics, and ultimately, everyone benefits. The systems as they are now are not healthy for anyone, not even those who benefit from them.

Racism and colonization is an issue that is very much still of our time. Jolie Varela expressed on social media that she wishes more people would “…acknowledge Indigenous people/organizations who are already doing this work, who have been doing this work…As an indigenous woman who still feels the effects of removal brought on by JM and his brand of American Conservation I do not view this as ‘complicated.’ It’s obvious because I see the impacts of this brand of removal every day. It’s not ‘complicated’ it’s messed up. I think addressing this issue as complicated allows people to make excuses for just how uncomplicated it really is. Because then people would have to address their own behavior and their own privilege. And it’s a way to excuse violent behavior.”

Often, White People Wonder, “What Can I do?” So, Here Is What I Do:

As a white woman who wants to end the legacy of harm and violence that I inherited from my ancestors (intentionally or not), I try to constantly confront white supremacy and how it shows up in myself and in my life. I frequently refer to Tema Okun’s list of White Supremacy Culture characteristics to help me locate where and how white supremacy is at play throughout my day and in my thinking, behavior, and actions. I support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) -led initiatives, organizations, and businesses. When opportunities come my way, I either give it up to a BIPOC, or I look for ways to include, spotlight, or recommend BIPOC to be included if they are not already. I follow, read, and pay for anti-racist education. I understand that anti-racism is a practice, not an identity. This means that I never deny my inherent racism for being raised in a society that conditions me to believe myself superior for my skin color, but I can practice anti-racism to try to prevent myself from causing harm as much as possible.

I don’t write off my friends and family who are resistant to talking about whiteness. I find ways to engage them in conversation about white supremacy and our complicity in it. I step out of my comfort zone and take risks at work in having these conversations because I know, ultimately, the risks are probably in my head, or rather, in my white fragility. I facilitate a series called “Detaching from Whiteness.” I don’t shy away from having these conversations with kids. Not only will they most likely be the most receptive, but it is a moral failing if we don’t talk candidly with children about systems of oppression because this is the world they are inheriting. Often, the kids end up teaching me. I value relationships over profit or social capital, which is the opposite of white supremacy culture. I give my money to people doing the work on the ground. I give my money to those who stand on street corners looking for change because I know it’s going to someone who needs it, not a third-party. I actively work to see myself in others, while honoring, respecting, and acknowledging our difference.

All of this is where I begin.

Erin Monahan is the founder of Terra Incognita Media. She’s a writer, facilitator, and rock climber based in Portland, Oregon. Her writing focuses on detaching from the commitment to the construct of Whiteness. You can follow her on Instagram @erin.k.monahan

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2019: Original Names

Call for participants

Rather than focusing on a particular species story, Remembrance Day for Lost Species (also called Lost Species Day, or RDLS) 2019 invites people to celebrate the ways that humans have named, loved and lived with their human and non-human kin. An aim of Lost Species Day 2019 is to highlight the histories and current importance of indigenous people and traditional cultures as ecological stewards.

The recorded names of now-extinct and endangered species were often given to them as part of the extractive colonial processes that are responsible for ecological crises worldwide. Many of these animals and plants would have had local names already, but what are they? Lost Species Day 2019 may offer participants paths to restorative knowledge and place-based practice through exploration of the local names, stories and knowledge of extinct and endangered species. 

There are many different ways to participate – here are a few examples:

  • Find out about and share stories that are local or relevant to you (eg local names of lost or endangered species)
  • Make art
  • Host a ceremony or event
  • Research your indigenous language/s 
  • Learn about the languages of animals and plants
  • Additionally, on days before or after RDLS, organise or participate in personally and collectively restorative activities (e.g. beach and waterway cleans, tree planting, gardening with pollinators and soil in mind).

Or do whatever you prefer. Please contact us to let us know your plans, and we will add them to the map of events.

How to join RDLS 2019

About Remembrance Day for Lost Species 

Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of extinct species. These stories lead to the stories of critically endangered species, ways of life, and ecological communities. Set up in 2011 in response to species extinctions resulting from human activity, Lost Species Day is an opportunity to make or renew commitments to all who remain and to collaborate on creative and practical solutions. The primary intention of the day is to create spaces for grieving and reflection. Previous activities have included art, processions, tree planting, building Life Cairns, bell casting and ringing, Regenerative Memorials and more. Explore this website for examples of past events.

Lost Species Day is a voluntary initiative supported by a loose collective of artists, activists and charitable organisations. 

CULTURE DECLARES EMERGENCY

Remembrance Day for Lost Species Declares a Climate and Ecological Emergency

In recognition of the science of climate change and of the devastating climate-related impacts of extractive capitalism on human lives, biodiversity and ecosystems around the world, the founders and advocates of Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th (RDLS) declare a climate and ecological emergency. We pledge to use the reach and influence of RDLS to take positive action on climate and to support those who are tackling this emergency. These are our intentions:

1. WE WILL TELL THE TRUTH

Governments and the media must tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency and its associated harms that disproportionately affect frontline communities and people of colour all over the world. They must communicate the urgent need for far-reaching systemic change. RDLS pledges to:

  • Use its platforms to communicate with people and support them to discuss and respond to the climate and ecological emergency, and to understand the changes that are needed.
  • Address fake news and bias in the media by posting/ reposting representative and scientifically accurate articles and information resources on RDLS social media, whilst also showing emotional responses such as grief and anger that people have.

2. WE WILL TAKE ACTION

Governments must reverse climate-harming policies and enact legally binding policy measures to reduce CO2 emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels. We pledge to:

  • Challenge governmental policies and actions at all levels that do not help to reduce CO2 emissions or fossil fuel consumption levels
  • Imagine and model ways that RDLS and its participatory practices and actions can regenerate the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems in ways that support social and racial justice.

3. WE ARE COMMITTED TO JUSTICE

The emergency has arisen from deeply systemic injustices. Arts and culture can imagine and forge shifts in the ways people relate to one another and the world, in values and behaviours. We pledge to:

  • Use RDLS’s brand and platforms to amplify the voices of people and ecological communities experiencing climate and environmental injustice and highlight intergenerational harm.
  • Support practical acts of solidarity that are informed by people directly affected by the systems and structures driving the ecological emergency, and promote initiatives led by these communities.
  • Endeavour to ensure that our practices, projects and proposals are underpinned by reflective dialogue as we push for biodiversity restoration, restorative culture and rapid action for climate justice.

Declaration ends.

For more information on #CultureDeclaresEmergency, please see the CultureDeclaresEmergency website.

Ponso No Tao: A Place for Living – by Tsai Tung Li

Tsai Tung Li
Ponso No Tao: A Place for Living

Paper, pencil, watercolour, collage 2018

The subject of extinction also touches on culture, environmental justice, and race. Even within the same ethnicity or country, there are huge differences between the culture where a person comes from and the culture where they live. This doesn’t only affect human beings – it is mirrored in the lives of animals in the wild and in cities. In my own country, Taiwan, this can be seen in the story of Orchid Island.

Orchid Island, or Ponso No Tao – ‘a place for living’ – is off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The islanders are mostly aboriginal Taiwanese: Tao people, who work as farmers and fishermen living closely with nature. Tragically, Orchid Island is best known in relation to the issue of nuclear waste. A nuclear waste storage facility was built at the southern tip of the island in 1982. It continues to receive waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants. Islanders did not have a say in the decision to locate the facility on the island. This happens in lots of communities in the world: often people don’t even have a chance to speak out. I am grateful to have a chance to bring it up here, whether it arouses grief, rebellion or simply awareness.

By conveying the messages of Lost Species Day through images and a story close to my life, I intend to create conversations with people of all ages. Trying to see things with a more childlike sensibility gives space for imagination. Choosing a flying fish as a narrator not only symbolises the aboriginal people but also gives a voice to this beautiful animal who cannot vocalise its suffering. My goal is to raise awareness of environmental injustices and create a conversation about the impacts of capitalism.

ARTWORKS AND EVENTS FOR RDLS 2018


Louis T. Fowler Endangered Species Ink Drawings.
The species’ disappearance are represented through ‘meandering, vanishing ink lines and trails’ (Louis’ website, link below).

Natee Puttapipat / Himmapaan

Drawing by illustrator Natee Puttappipat (@Himmapaan) for RDLS 2018.
Source: Lost Species day Twitter images / @Himmapaan

Sara Otterstätter
‏A new artwork created by artist/ illustrator Sara Otterstätter/ @SaraLutra, dedicated to Steller’s Sea Cow for RDSL 2018.
‏Source: LostSpeciesDay retweeted @SaraLutra (Sara Otterstätter)

Sonia Shomalzadeh
A 6 metre, subadult life-size drawing of Steller’s Sea Cow by artist Sonia Shomalzadeh. Here it is displayed on ONCA’s Barge for the RDLS Procession in Brighton 2018.

Source: LostSpeciesDay Twitter

Chicago (IL), USA: A Benefit Concert 30/11
A benefit concert that featured original songs about extinct animals by Chicago-based singer-songwriters. All the proceeds went to ‘Friends of the Chicago River’, a charity working to improve the health of the Chicago river system for people, animals and plants.

Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka: A Beach Ritual
A ritual was held on Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka in praise of whales.

White Plains (NY), USA: A Congregation
A community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, hosted by Revs. LoraKim Joyner and Meredith Garmon.

Falmouth, UK: A Film Screening
The documentary Albatross by artist Chris Jordan was screened in Falmouth. The film depicts the tragic occurrences of dead albatrosses with stomachs filled with plastic, reflecting on the destructive power of mass consumption.

(Info on film: https://www.albatrossthefilm.com/ourstory/)

Galway, Republic of Ireland: ‘Sing for our Planet’ meeting with Transition Tunes Galway 30/11

A meeting was held at St Nicholas’ primary school for an hour to remember and raise awareness of the plight of all the extinct and endangered species of the world. Poems, songs, music and silence were shared.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Exhibition and Performances Exploring the Extinction of Birds

BirdScore is a collaboration between artist Jeroen van Westen (NL) and musician/artist Michael Pestel (USA). It involves an interactive set of multi-media installations, a choreographed/scored performance work, interlocking indoor and outdoor, and a strategy for local environmental research and interspecies communication with birds. Through these works, the artists look at the world from the point of view of the nearly two hundred species of birds gone extinct since the time of colonial expansion in the 17th Century, seeking to give voice to species we can no longer hear, and images to sights we can no longer see. Art meets science in this speculative area to explore a way in which to develop a cross cultural awareness for the interactive dynamics between nature and culture as a possible prerequisite for a sustainable relationship with and between all forms of life and habitats on this planet.

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Detroit (MI), USA: Film Screening and Performance Event 30/11
A two part event consisting of a community potluck and film screening, followed by performances by Vness Wolfchild and Roo Gatsby. Guests were encouraged to dress as a species other than their own.

Singapore: Remembrance Gathering 30/11
People met outside in Singapore for rituals, song, primal movement and story sharing.  

Image source: Florence Leung on the facebook event page

Leiden, Netherlands: Building a Life Cairn 30/11
A Life Cairn was built in Leiden, inspired by the Life Cairn that was built in 2011 by Andreas Kornevall and others on Mount Caburn in Sussex. Participants gathered and added stones to commemorate plant and animal species that will never be encountered again due to their extinction.
A stone was sent from the USA to Leiden to be added to the Life Cairn.

Somerset, UK: Poetry Reading 30/11
People gathered at the trig point of Cley Hill in England. On top of this 244m hill, participants shared a reading of the poem ‘Bestiary’ by Joanna Macy. The poem is an expression of grief for the loss of species, with an intention for people to know the depth of this sorrow so as to feel the depth of their belonging.

(http://www.earthregenerative.org/earth-empathy/hope-cat.html)

An extract of the poem reads:

‘The list of endangered species keeps growing longer every year.  With too many names to hold in our mind, how do we honor the passing of life?  What funerals or farewells are appropriate?’

Barcelona, Spain: Ritual Gathering 30/11
A ritual gathering with flowers, candles and instruments to raise awareness about the extinction of species, biodiversity loss and environmental crises in a non-aggressive and inclusive way.

Stories of lost species were told such as that of the last Pyrenean ibex (2000) and the last Pinta Island tortoise (2012), as well as a discussion on how to halt the sixth mass extinction by transforming society’s relationship with nature.

This event ran in support of biodiversity project ‘Nature Needs Half’ which aims to protect 50% of the planet by 2050. https://natureneedshalf.org/

Encinitas (CA), USA: Storytelling and Ritual 30/11
People gathered for a fire ritual and storytelling in commemoration of extinct species.

Germany: Steller Society Events Programme 2018
An international society that celebrates the work of naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller dedicated its 2018 annual programme of activities to Steller’s Sea Cow and Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Steller discovered the Sea Cow in 1741 around the Commander Island but it was driven to extinction by 1768.  

Maui, Hawaii: Seaweed Mandala 30/11

Manitoulin Island, Canada: Ritual 30/11
Nature communicator Madii Kasem hosted an evening of shamanic teachings, stories and ceremony with special guest Debra Ann Tate, ‘remembering the loss of animals and plants while celebrating our power to co-create the world we want to live in.’

Muiderberg, Netherlands: Event of Art, Talks, Music, Ceremony 30/11
In Muiderberg an afternoon/ evening of talks, artworks, film, discussion, singing, a fire and a shared meal was held for RDLS. Participants created shell-like objects and lay them down after a silent ritual with an intention.

Totnes, Devon, UK: Building a Life Cairn 1/12
A Life Cairn was built on a hill overlooking the river Dart in Devon for RDLS. A procession took place to the site of the Cairn by a maple tree, with 160 flags painted with extinct species suspended from wooden sticks. Stones were then layed in honour of these species.

‘These are species that are never to give birth again, never to sing, dance, court, hunt or be the astonishing animate expression of our Mother’s deep dreaming… I can only explain this as the consequence of having stepped out of the web of deep belonging.’  Azul Valérie Thomé (participant).

Photographs by Kay Michael (source: facebook event)

Knysa, South Africa: ‘Art for Species’ Exhibition, 5 – 30 November
Inspired by and in support of Remembrance Day for Lost Species, an exhibition was organised by artists in South Africa to reflect on current endangered and vulnerable species. Several talks, workshops and guided walks ran alongside the exhibition. The exhibition and project was led by artist Janet Botes who is passionate about inspiring action in support of biodiversity.

The exhibition included the work ‘Floating Away’ by Ingrid Nuss.

More artworks and information on the whole project at: https://artforspecies.org/artworks/  

Cape Town, South Africa: Beach Gathering 30/11
An all day beach gathering was held on Glen Beach for Lost Species Day with South African calligrapher Andrew van der Merwe. Having pioneered techniques in beach calligraphy, Merwe gave a sand scribing workshop before proceeding to record the names of lost species in the sand. As the tide changed, the water washed away the transient artwork.

‘Through their names we will remember’

Following sunset and the disappearance of the words written in the sand was a shared picnic, fire dancing and the lighting of the extinction symbol. Participants were invited to contribute in any creative way they felt inclined e.g. reading a poem, storytelling, drumming, sketching, sand art or simply grieving in silence.

*add photograph of burning extinction sign*

Brighton, UK: Evening Talks at a Museum of Natural History 15/11

The Booth Museum of Natural History hosted an evening of talks to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the extinction of Steller’s Sea Cow for Lost Species Day. Speakers included Michael Blencowe and Sarah Ward from Sussex Wildlife Trust and Matthew Stanfield, a Lost Species Day researcher from ONCA. Talks reflected on what we can learn from the demise of Steller’s Sea Cow to prevent the loss of today’s most treasured marine megafauna.

On display were fossils of the future – plaster casts from plastic created by children in a workshop at ONCA’s Barge.

Brighton, UK: Artist Residency and Exhibition at ONCA, 1/11 – 16/12

This year for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, ONCA hosted a residency for 3 POC artists to develop new work around the theme of racial justice, environmental justice and biodiversity loss.

The selected artists were Laurèl Hadleigh, Matice Moore, and Tsai Tung Li. They shared a studio space on ONCA’s Barge at Brighton Marina before exhibiting their work at ONCA’s main gallery. The final exhibition entitled ‘Some of Us Did Not Die’ was curated by Imani Robinson and entailed painting, illustration and video.

‘In conversation with the past, the future, and each other, the work explored strategies and connections required to survive our current apocalyptic conditions. Whiteness has framed racialized bodies and knowledge as expendable, inconsequential, or hazardous to the values of empire.

Brighton, UK: Zine Making-Workshop

ONCA Gallery supervisor, communications officer & art activist Susuana Amoah facilitated a zine-making workshop as part of the RDLS exhibition programme. Participants created colourful collages inspired by the 3 POC artists’ work in the exhibition Some of Us Did Not Die. The collages were arranged together in the final zines along with information on the residency project and Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Brighton, UK: Beach Procession for Steller’s Sea Cow, 1/12
A ritual memorial for Steller’s Sea Cow. Starting on ONCA’s Barge, adults and children gathered to hear the history of the Sea Cow told by historian Matthew Stanfield with the company of a large Sea Cow model suspended from the ceiling.

In an open circle, participants shared something they wanted to grieve for, something or someone they wanted to make a promise to for the future and something they felt grateful for.

The sea cow was then carried through the shops and restaurants of the marina, down to the beach where it was set alight and burnt to the ground in ceremony.

Photographer Zoe Childerley documented the event:

Sea cow in the window of ONCA’s barge

Brighton, UK: Stories From the Sea at ONCA’s Barge, 1/12
A drop-in workshop hosted by artists Zoe Childerley & Beckie Leach McDonald involving ocean themed activities – imagining and collecting stories of the ocean environment and of extinct and mythical sea creatures. Activities included poster and zine making, the telling of myths and legends of the sea and space to commit positive action for the ocean.

Artwork ‘Manatee Resting’ by New York-based artist Jan Harrison

Brighton, UK: Talk on Extinction and De-extinction with Dr Sadiah Qureshi 29/11/18

Dr Qureshi’s talk was a whistle-stop tour of the history of ideas about extinction – from the discovery of fossilised megabeasts in the late eighteenth century to the present-day debates about de-extinction and the future of earth’s biodiversity. The talk was followed by an interactive activity: If you could, would you bring back an extinct species? If so, which one?

The event took place during the Some of Us Did Not Die exhibition at ONCA Gallery for RDLS as part of ONCA’s residency project.


Glasgow, UK: Zine Launch and Gig, 28/11
An event to launch a zine to raise awareness of RDLS and to raise funds for Sea Shepherd UK.

Special guests included: Richard Youngs, Claquer & Catriona McKay, Electroscope, Bell Lungs, Ego Depletion, Luminous Monsters, Burnt Paw and Juana Adcock.

Huncoat, UK: Campaign Launch, 30/11

People gathered at the footbridge of Huncoat railway station to take a photograph to use for their campaign to preserve the wildlife there.

Huncoat colliery became a wildlife haven for wildflowers and butterflies after it ceased to operate in the 1960s. 21 butterfly species are present at Huncoat Colliery, 13 of which are in decline, including 2 species classed as a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (Small Heath and White-letter Hairstreak). Huncoat Colliery has been earmarked for housing development which could be terrible news for local biodiversity, as we stand to lose an area rich in wildlife at a time when it’s more important than ever to protect the precious habitat we have left.

British Columbia, Canada: Walk for the Wild Things, 30/11

A walk from South Chesterman Beach to Frank Island to raise awareness of threatened and extinct animals as part of the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species. It was ‘a reflective opportunity to challenge the creative mind to act with hope in our commitment to nature.’

A beach fire was held afterwards at which Pacific Rim National Park warden Tanya Dowdall shared information about locally endangered species and plans to prevent extinction. A poem was also shared by poet Sherry Marr.

Wales, UK: Art installation, 19/11 – 28/12
Oriel Blodau Bach was previously an unused notice board and later became west Wales’ smallest contemporary art gallery.

For RDLS 2018, artist and co-founder of RDLS Emily Laurens exhibited her work featuring Steller’s Sea Cow.

More work by Emily Laurens:

A Steller’s sea cow diorama made from reclaimed materials by Wales-based artist Emily Laurens.

(Clay sculpture of Steller’s Sea Cow also by Emily Laurens.

Leleuvia Island, Fiji: Beach Art/ litter picking, 30/11
Plastic was collected on the beach and used to make sand art and earrings in memory of Steller’s Sea Cow and other extinct species.

Earrings by Anne O’Brien made from a plastic bottle found on the beach.

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF),  Syracuse, NY, 29 Nov

St Helen’s Well, near Market Weighton, Yorkshire, 7pm Nov 30: Yorkshire Life Cairn ceremony

Devon, UK: Artist led walk, 2/12
A walk through Tungsten mine in Devon with mythogeographic walking artists Crab and Bee to commemorate the last wolves of Dartmoor in the 1780s. The event was also to raise awareness of the ongoing habitat destruction on southern Dartmoor.

Syracuse (NY), USA: Day of events at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry 29/11

ESF students, faculty and staff observed Remembrance Day for Lost Species Thursday, Nov. 29 to  pause from their work and explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways and ecological communities.

Brian Ratcliffe, a graduate student was the principle organiser, curating a day of events centred around the themes of extinction, memory, emotion and community.

Events included:
A grief and healing ceremony: featuring music, poetry, stories, ritual and food.

An extinction gallery: a slideshow depicting species from the region who are endangered, threatened or extinct.

A remembrance circle: space for people to leave flowers, stones, photos, drawings, notes, candles or anything else left in a spirit of honor and remembrance.

-Letter-Writing Campaign in Defense of the Endangered Species Act

Mural creation: student artists facilitated the collective creation of a mural made from rubbish which was to result in an image of an extinct species.

-Species appreciation walk: A student led a walk across the campus, pointing out plant species along the way and telling their storie

-Film screening of Black Ash Basketry: A Story of Cultural Resilience

Adrian Ventura
As part of his ‘sketch a day’ project, Adrian Ventura dedicated a sketch to the Vaquita for RDLS – a porpoise on the brink of extinction.



Tattoos

Charlotte Wrigley posted a photograph on twitter of her new tattoo depicting Steller’s Sea Cow to add to her collection of extinct species tattoos.  (right)

Tattoo portrait of Martha, the last passenger pigeon for RDLS posted on Instagram (below) inspired by Kate Snowbird’s original painting.

London, UK: Drawing Session with Andrea Carr 30/11
‘Live drawing/ erasing’ at Studio 73

New work by artist and performer Andrea Carr. She drew the wild Atlantic salmon – a longstanding target of commercial fishing and habitat destruction – and then asked passersby in the street to rub sections of the drawing out.

Louise Pallister Louise Pallister posted a new print for RDLS 2018 on Twitter dedicated to the Thylacine, made extinct in 1936.


Brighton, UK: Remembrance swim

Cloe Ofori shared on twitter that she and others went for an ice cold swim in the sea in remembrance of Steller’s sea cow – reflecting on the “torture of extinction through the bitter cold of the water”. They then wrote pledges on stones and threw them into the water.

Svenja Meyerricks writing on ‘Remembrance, Lost Species and Parenthood’ for RDLS 2018

‘To grow a tiny person and nurture her with my body’s own milk was the most visceral reminder of my own mammalian nature and place in the wider biotic community.’

‘Moving beyond stuff and pets, the only meaningful way to love animals these days is to find our place in the wider biotic community once again with humility and awe.’

Full text here.

Sydney, Australia: thylacine office cushion
Simon from Sydney ‘drew’ a thylacine in sequins in his office’s cushion to mark Lost Species Day 2018 in hope that his colleagues would reflect on the reality of extinction with him.

Hapi and the Lost Species
Release new EP entitled ‘Human Nature Changes’ to coincide with RDLS.

Kate Tume/ Mother Eagle
New embroidery remembrance handkerchief series by Kate Tume. The first two are dedicated to the last Pyrenean Ibex (Celia, 2000) and Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (2012). Posted on Instagram.

Jill Bog
Jill created a new 2D video animation of Steller’s Sea Cow disappearing in the water for RDLS 2018 and posted it on Instagram.

Kat Lyons: poetry
Kat Lyons shared a poem she wrote thinking about extinction for RDLS on Instagram. The title is ‘Ghosts on My Tongue’

Chris Lochner
Chris Lochner exhibited his botanical illustrations of extinct and endangered plant species at Verge Exhibition in Australia which coincided with RDLS 2018. The image depicts The Pink Satyr, an endangered species of orchid.

Glasgow, UK: An Urban Dive 30/11
‘Urban Divers continued their research into climate destabilisation and marine biodiversity loss with a dive down Buchanan St, Glasgow. Wading through Black Friday remnants they searched for the 90% of large fish lost in the last 50 years due to human activity.’ (@LostSpeciesDay)


Extinction Witness VOW 2 ACT – by Megan Hollingsworth

“Absolutely [global warming is] reversible. There’s no question about it … but hope has to pass the sobriety test and walk a pretty straight line to reality.  Otherwise, it’s delusion.”

Paul Hawken, author and founder at Project Drawdown, Interview at Regenerative Development Conference


In 2014, Glaciologist Eric Rignot suggested that there may yet be a chance to slow down the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s rapid irreversible decline and “a different level of communication” is required to translate the gravity of what he and his peers see.

The Vow 2 Act emphasizes that role modeling helpful action is the primary different level of communication needed. And is written by Extinction Witness founder and creative director Megan Hollingsworth as a practice response to Eric Rignot’s call.

The Vow language is grounded in the knowledge that the ecological health crisis is driven by a human health crisis. And awareness that the roots of the human health crisis are the spiritual crises of materialism, entitlement, and punitive judgment.

The results of brutal competition complicated by materialism are in. Whether or not we personally experience scarcity, this is a globally scarce moment that calls for compassionate intention, frugality, efficiency, and ingenuity.

Someone living in New York, where over 11,000 children under the age of 6 live in the shelter system, need not visit Yemen or Ghana to see the child’s deprivation brought by cruel socioeconomic practices generations-old.

While the words used and stories told matter, actions are effective only so far as the intention that forms the basis of the actions.


“ …Unfortunately, the Brazilian people, elite and masses alike,  were generally unprepared to evaluate the transition critically; and so tossed about by the force of the contending contradictions, they began to fall into sectarian positions instead of opting for radical solutions.”

Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, 1973


Vow 2 Act signatories vow to be a different level of communication by thought, word, and all other actions. This, a true “radicalization” of the individual toward truly radical solutions to collective ills.

Vow signatories commit to rebellion in the purest sense. Rebellion as honesty, compassion, and kindness.

Rebellion as the ability to see one’s own propensity for ignorance and refrain from ignorance. To see one’s own propensity for greed and refrain from greed. To see one’s own propensity for hatred and refrain from hatred.

Rebellion as the ability to practice compassion toward oneself and all others by thought, word, and hand that every expression and exchange display and promote compassion with kindness.

Please continue reading and consider taking the Vow 2 Act.

Sonia Boyce, decolonial artist, and her connection to lost species  – by Cloe Ofori

Streaked Bombardier beetle photo c/o Craig Slawson, Buglife

Sonia Boyce, MBE is a British artist, activist, curator and academic whose work features decolonial, participatory and ecological themes. She began working in the 1980s and quickly became a central figure in the black British art scene at the time – in 1987 she was the first black female artist to be exhibited at the Tate.

Her work began as an exploration of self and her position and visibility as a black British woman in contemporary British society. From observations of her race and gender, Boyce’s work has opened up to become more collaborative, encouraging discussions of similar themes.

One piece of work that chimes with Remembrance Day for Lost Species is Boyce’s recent commission to work on the Crossrail Elizabeth line near the docks in the east London borough of Newham, the area where the artist grew up. It will be the longest artwork in the UK, a mural that stretches 1.8km through Custom House, Silvertown and Woolwich. The theme of the mural is a kind of local ecology. Earlier this year, she worked with local residents as part of the research process, through oral histories and knowledge evolving from pub quizzes. This cooperative process is a defining feature of Boyce’s work and feeds into a decolonial theme of art being created by the people it is for; grassroots rather than top-down.

Boyce has said that she is interested in place and “site specific” work. In her proposal video for the Crossrail mural which Boyce of course won, she cites the London docklands as “the gateway to Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world” in terms of empire and trade. She is particularly interested in the people that live in and have passed through the docks and their relationship with British culture.

Boyce has woven local species into the mural. In her conversation with Frieze Magazine, she talks about a species of bombadier beetle which is found exclusively in the docks and its connection with the history of the place. In 2006 a colony of 61 Streaked bombadier beetles was rediscovered in the docklands after having been presumed extinct since 1928. This has led to concerns about protecting the areas of brownfield land in East London – prime land for developers and the “upscaling” and inevitable extinction of local communities, human or otherwise.

Since the 1990s, Boyce’s work has evolved with participation as a defining feature. Boyce herself considers this important and central to her method; visible in the way that she worked with Newham residents and community groups to create the Crossrail mural. Looking through a geopolitical lens, the timing of the Elizabeth line is problematic. Boroughs like Newham, previously a working-class, disenfranchised area, are now witnessing an unprecedented period of gentrification. Crossrail, which prides itself on connecting London and the South East, seems opportune and provokes questions about why it is only now that South East London is being connected to central London with a “state-of-the-art” railway.

With this in mind, Boyce’s process, working with local people and communities, relates directly to one of the issues that Remembrance Day for Lost Species seeks to consider: exploring stories of cultures driven to extinction by unjust power structures. The mural not only remembers but celebrates the history of the area in all its forms, of people, of local flora and fauna, and of the diverse cultures which have created what it has been and will be.

Another example of Boyce’s work as starting a dialogue is her “takeover” of Manchester Art Gallery in January of this year. It involved collaboration to discuss two controversial paintings, one of which, Hylas and the Nymphs (by John William Waterhouse, 1896), features unsettling portrayals of women. Boyce started a dialogue about this piece and gender binary representations with a local drag group and museum staff, which culminated in on-site performances, an art piece in itself. During Boyce’s takeover, the painting was temporarily removed, which caused a furore about censorship, criticisms which Boyce has addressed in her conversation with the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins. 

Boyce’s work promotes conversation and thoughts about local communities’ role in creating art and questioning structures of power. Remembrance Day for Lost Species goes far beyond the animals and plants themselves, and seeks to bring the themes that Boyce discusses in her work – of race, class, gender and how the identities within these classifications are being threatened – to the fore.

Cloe Ofori is a writer and researcher based in Brighton, England.