Deschooling: climate and art


an invitation to imagine

Otobong Nkanga, Filtered Memories, 1990—92: acrylic on paper, 42 × 29cm. All images courtesy the artist; Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam; and In Situ Fabienne Leclerc Gallery, Paris


Imagine a deck of cards in your pocket. These can be common playing cards with the traditional four suits or better, your own, personalised tarot set of depicting a mishmash of your favourite Major Arcana and Minor Arcana cards. The Major Arcana cards speak to the great secrets, the monumental influences that signal life-changing, ground-breaking and earth-shaking developments like the beginning and end of cycles, seasons, relationships. The greater journeys of our planetary existence. The Minor Arcana reflect more humane, mundane matters like eating sleeping, dancing. The smaller journeys and humdrum tasks, like banking or recycling. Now imagine reaching a hand into your pocket every time a small frustration or wicked problem stumps you and you find yourself in need of insight into the past, present or future. A quick glance at the card of your choice and the hard work of understanding, formulating questions or drawing interpretations is made simple. Not quite cartomancy, but close. Alternatively, if divination is a bit too woo woo for you, imagine a well-crafted set of tools. Wood or metal, every spanner, hammer and wench is neatly lined up in your multilayered, similarly well-designed toolbox, ready to be wielded in service of making sense of annoying problems or vast fields of inquiry.

I thought about my ideal set of sense-making cards or handy tools a lot during October 2020 during a series of conversations I had with artists, editors, scholars and curators. Most were from South Africa or Nigeria, but a few outliers joined the fold too. I was curious about them, from their philosophies to their practices, and they were generous with me, sharing much more than anticipated. While the conversations were mainly focused on investigating their individual work, sometimes I’d slip in questions about ‘the climate’ without ever really defining it or ‘contemporary art, ‘ without really defining that either.

In my PhD research, I am interested in climate politics and poetics in South Africa and Nigeria, everything from policy to protest to prose. But as writer, interested in arts, I am dismayed by the dearth of creative practice exploring climate and arts together. Climate issues on the continent are rarely explored in intersectional terms,  and even less so in arts criticism. Capitalism, and the colonial logics that underpin it, demand fodder for extraction, commodifying everything from art to writing about art. This logic extends to learning practices in arts writing too: knowledge must be dissected, disembodied and displayed.

I was also curious about the ways in which some of the harmful extractive practices that have given rise to the climate crisis get reproduced in innocuous ways in both knowledge production and creative practices. The causes and implications of human-induced climate change are everywhere but seeing them is a matter of knowing where and how to look. But is there a critical methodology for defining and analysing the relationship between art and climate?  For example, if we borrow from literature, ‘Ecocriticism’ offers an interesting interdisciplinary approach that foregrounds how texts may be analysed in ways that illustrate literature’s treatment of the environment as a subject. Is there a similar approach for analysing art? Specific to climate? Let’s call it climate-criticism for now. Can it be used in a way that doesn’t shortchange other important pressing concerns and critical approaches, like race and gender? Is it possible to highlight climate change as the ground on which all cultural activities occur, and provide deeper insights into the practices of African artists in a manner that avoids institutional/ theoretical baggage for arts writers?

These were some of the questions I had in the back of my mind, but wisely avoided bombarding everyone with. Some discussions flowed freely, including everything from curatorial care to decolonial propositions to philosophies of land. Sometimes the conversations took shape as long, rich interviews, sometimes a shared reading. One conversation came from a working relationship and grew into a professional friendship. Some were recorded, others not. Subconsciously, a multimodal machine was being built, brimming with multitudes and buzzing with promise. But the whole time, I longed for some kind of technique or tool or divining set of cards to make sense of the glut of information that came with all these conversations. This longing is mirrored in how I feel about both the climate crisis and art: one causes me great anxiety, the other floods with me excitement. To manage my nerves, both emotional responses require intellectual instruments. And so, throughout these conversations, I found myself longing for a guiding system of ideas, or theories. Simultaneously, I was apprehensive about turning to theory, averse to being weighed down by texts and tomes. I know that this wariness is not specific to me, that a suspicion of theory is something that many experience as an unfortunate consequence of being introduced to critical theory in an oppressively instructional way during formal education.

Ivan Illich, who wasn’t the biggest fan of conventional schooling, explains that

“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”

And so, I invite you to be “with it”. To join me on this journey of climate conversations, art investigations, cards and tools. Most of all tools, theoretical ones. Preferably illuminating ones, that help to see more clearly. Gilles Deleuze offers a useful analogy for imagining theory, quoting from Marcel Proust to illustrate his nifty perspective:

“A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others. It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.”

Approach this project like a pair of glasses, in the same way that I approach theory. Ideally, with a whole lot of imagination.

Click HERE for the next text, which marks the start of a climate-art assemblage.


Foucault, M. and Deleuze, G.(1972) “Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze”. Available here.
Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.