Art Starts a Dialogue on Climate Change at the MFA

Kristen Wyman, lead mentor at Gedakina, discusses climate change during panel at the Museum of Arts in Boston on Sept. 27.

By Antonia DeBianchi
BU News Service

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, there is a print depicting two people juggling tiny, dot-like balls. They’re struggling to keep the balls in the air, but they’re smiling all the same.

The print took center stage Wednesday at “The City Talks: Climate Change,” a discussion at the museum that was inspired by climate change and race themes in a featured exhibit on the natural world, “Follow the North Star: Inuit Art from the Collection of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh.”

Through the artwork, panelists discussed human involvement in the intersection of climate change and racism in order to brainstorm how Boston communities can approach climate change solutions.

During the event, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church said the juggling print shows how people must not be discouraged but also must answer the question: “Who is going to catch it?” She said there are multiple plans of action we need to think of and, in turn, juggle everyday to combat climate change.

Adi Nochur, a panelist and project manager for WalkBoston, an organization dedicated to making walking in Boston more safe and sustainable, pointed to how the recent hurricanes that impacted Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Florida and Houston were related to climate change. He said art could help to open up a broader conversation about what to do next.

“This isn’t just about flooding. This isn’t just about the environment,” Nochur said. “It’s about what are the impacts on our communities if we don’t actually address this issue?”

The crowd of about 50 people were interested in getting involved. Jonathan Howard, who attended the event and is a professor at Boston College specializing in the relationship between race and nature, said climate change is “a timely issue especially now with the recent slew of hurricanes.”

“It’s more on people’s radars — trying to understand climate change,” Howard said.

The night also got political. White-Hammond said she is “a little thankful for 45,”referring to President Donald Trump, because she believes he is prompting people to act on the issues she considers most important. The reverend said steps to mitigate climate change must also address racism.

Kristen Wyman, a member of the Nipmuc tribe of Massachusetts and a lead mentor at Gedakina, a nonprofit that connects Native American youth and families across New England, introduced the issue of land ownership and said how that issue, along with race have been intertwined for centuries.

“The forced removal of people has started the way to here,” she said, referring to contemporary, land-environmental issues, including construction on Native American soil.

Panelist Jill Valdes Horwood, director of policy at Boston Harbor Now, an organization that works to restore Boston as an acclaimed coastal city, shifted the conversation to interconnectedness. She said citizens need to take individual strides to reduce their carbon footprints, but they also need to work as a whole to create equitable environmental policies.

Several attendees agreed with Horwood’s outlook. Allen Alfadhel, a senior studying space engineering at Suffolk University, came to the panel hoping to open dialogue between scientists like himself and people from other backgrounds.

“We don’t really know how the public receives the problem, and oftentimes they see it a bit differently,” Alfadhel said.

After the event, Alfadhel said he was eager to go back to his colleagues and lab partner and discuss how others perceive the problem of climate change.

While all three panelists approached climate change from different standpoints, each said it is an issue rooted in more than the natural environment alone.

Wyman spoke about its intersection with art and politics. To her, climate change is more than personal — it’s visceral.

“Nipmuc means freshwater people,” she said. “In our language, we understand that we are it, and it is us.”

“I see a big connection between our elders and our young people,” Wyman said. “There need to be people who are weavers, who bring people together — our elders — who know the mistakes of the past, who know what we need to carry on for our young people, so that we ground ourselves and know where we’re going as a human race.”

The Inuit exhibit is on view in the Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery at the MFA until Dec. 31.

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