Diversity and Climate Art: Emma Ako

Emma Ako

My name is Emma Ako and I’m from London, born into a Cameroonian family. I was born and raised in Bethnal Green and Sydenham, so around a wide range of ethnicities, however, I was mostly around BME and foreigners which had a huge impact on how I see the world around me in terms of opportunities.

How would you describe your practice and your work as an activist/artist?

As an activist I have always had an interest in preserving the environment with a focus on how we treat land, land-fills and rubbish. I’ve always been aware of waste and concerned about this. I started learning about conflict minerals from Congo, about mining communities and the devastation mining causes. This industry is destroying the land and isn’t sustainable.

In 2007 I got involved with Greenpeace, and was actually really interested in ice caps and polar bears and had a party on this theme at home. I’m a very earth sign type person and my interest connects with that side of me. We learned bits at school about the environment and for some reason I felt quite concerned and had an interest. Science at school was not that interesting when looking at the environment. But I have always been more comfortable in nature and will study and work in nature, felt connected to nature, and see myself as connecting to it, not separate from it. At primary school I volunteered to clear the garden, consciously decided to help out and have fun in the sun. I loved nature after that. But there wasn’t as much opportunity to do things like this during my teens.

How do you explore climate change? Tell me about your work and approach.

Conflict minerals from Congo are my main area. Technology uses these minerals, and there is human injustice in how minerals are mined. There is no infrastructure or good safety equipment, kids are working there, there is no safety or training, lots of child soldiers, street kids, and sex workers doing this work. This is what happens before the minerals go in our tech. Mines in Congo look like a bomb has gone off, it does not look like a work site, but bomb site. No workers rights, no helmets or safety. Kids are small enough to fit some difficult and dangerous areas so they end up doing some of this work. There are no structures and scaffolding so often mines cave in leading to people dying.

I blame the Congo government, they can fend off competitors and are making money. Local miners and groups too, local miners compete, gold and coltam are worth the most, coltam for batteries. It is basic with no infrastructure of lighting etc. This totally messes up nature as people used to live there so lose their homes, wildlife and trees get destroyed, as well as being a human issue-moving them. Oxygen is not getting to trees and nature…an increase in urbanisation is not good for nature.

What is the intention of this work/research?

I want to change peoples behaviour choices in what they buy, we have spending power so can challenge manufacturers. I used to work in advertising, why can’t clients ask and challenge where stuff is coming from?

Do you think you have had an impact?

I want to change how people think about technology, how to get it in fair trade conversation a lot more, its there for fashion and food products but what about technology? Needs to be in there too. I felt like I had to do something. I have shared this with artists; my audience is mainly creative people. My message is that we need to challenge how tech is processed from start to finish, otherwise we are funding it all. I have organised poetry and art events called Poetry Meets Art. This ran for 3 years every month in East London and South East London, A range of poets performed pieces to do with activism and human injustice to challenge people to think bigger. People from different charities and organisation were able to speak about Congo. This came to an end in 2015. I just did it without funding but made a profit as it was ticketed so paid people paid on the door.

Who is your audience?

It was mainly a black crowd there in the majority, I didn’t do it on purpose but was aware its an African issue, Congo and that land, we all use tech but Congo is African.

Do you think diverse arts orgs are less involved in exploring the climate issue?

Yes. There are definitely not enough.

Why do you think most of the funded work or Arts projects we see seem to be by white artists?

There is not the same access or awareness about funds by everyone, I didn’t know it was even available. I was a receptionist as my day job when I was organising these events.

Do you think the arts has the potential to educate and inform audiences about the climate challenge?

Absolutely yes, I use poetry as people can understand the language I am using, it’s accessible and easy for the audience, it’s a good vehicle. If some people try to read a complicated article they would not understand and it might be quite boring, but a song will work; too much that is written on the topic is not accessible. When I look at art activism I can see the difference in putting across the message.

Do you think we need specific arts projects by and for diverse audiences to widen the impact and encourage change in society?

Yes we absolutely do. Artists are the true leaders. We inspire others and see things differently. We will trust and listen to people who look like us, it’s a given. So yes we need different people and more people of colour artists being platformed and looking at these issues. It has to happen, it’s a no brainer, we need the role models, and art cuts out the jargon so that people take notice can relate. If we de-jargonise things people will take notice, need a wider demographic in the conversation.

What else are your thoughts on this topic? What would you like to see more of and what is necessary?

The Blue Planet for example is by and for white people mainly, there are no role models, people of colour can’t see themselves in the story. I am from Cameroon, I identify as a Cameroonian first, then a Londoner. In Cameroon I get told I am white. I have been in the Cameroonian community in London, so have always been aware of my identity through my parents. I know about cultural norm and values, how to behave, notions of respect, food is massive, arts and culture are really important.

Harpreet’s reflections

Many of my conversations with POC in relation to the environment have suggested that POC do not necessarily connect with the stereotypical polar bear and ice caps melting images about the environment, but talking to Emma revealed that some do. Of course why wouldn’t they, we are all so different…or maybe Emma is just a one off in the minority! Jokes aside, Emma’s story shows that what has influenced her to act is both a concern and love for and connection with nature, and for the people being affected, that is linked with her identity as having African heritage.

I like her points about encouraging fair trade conversations about tech, why are these not happening more? The social, political and climate justice themes are very clear here, as well as environmental. Emma is keen to use language and a vehicle that makes sense to the people in order to have an influence.

Meeting Emma makes me wonder how many other creative artists and producers are out there, people making work in our communities and putting on events that are not funded by say, the Arts Council as such. Some of the most interesting work might be happening underground and under our noses, but having no awareness of funding opportunities available to them as they are not part of certain networks, is possibly an issue. Is this ok or not? I’m not suggesting that the Arts Council has sole responsibility to support this sort of work, but the question of funding, who gets it and for what is always an interesting one. As purse strings tighten we increasingly have to measure impact to justify spend. It’s partly a numbers game and who you know. It’s clear from talking to Emma that regardless of where the money comes from, there needs to be more work by POCs to re-tell the climate story for a range of narratives for broad audiences.

For an introduction to this series of articles see New Narratives on the Climate Story.

This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

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