Art reflects society, reflects our actions and natural phenomena.
So what do creatives do when the oceans rebel?
This is what is happening in the world today. Climate change and marine pollution are negatively impacting life on Earth, and there are communities that are affected and don’t understand why.
Kenyan artist Caroline Ngorobi, 37, has decided to take climate and pollution issues down to Kenya’s coastal communities.
Ngorobi is Creative Director at Jukwaa Arts, a Mombasa-based creative arts group that uses theater in education to deal with modern problems.
In her latest project, a festival called Bahari Huru, Swahili for “free oceans,” Ngorobi tells stories about the importance of ocean conservation to spark conversations about how pollution happens, who is polluting, why, and what solutions communities can offer to help they avoid more pitfalls.
Community art project
It does this through a community-focused arts and theater performance project that aims to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the marine environment.
She simplified the performance by using everyday “themes” familiar to her audience, such as fish, mangroves, turtles, and ocean tides. She has given these subjects personalities to evoke emotions so that the fish in the performances cry out for a clean environment to live and reproduce or die; the mangroves are crying out for help to avoid being destroyed; Turtles just run away to escape from humans and oceans, the source of all these lives gets angry and lashes out by overrunning land. These are all symbols of dwindling fish stocks and depleted mangrove forests and rising sea levels, all of which are effects of climate change and marine pollution.
The 10-day arts festival in three coastal districts in Kenya simplified the most complex terminologies, theories and research papers to tell stories about the environment while addressing social issues.
As a poet and performer, Ngorobi uses performing and visual arts, music, and fuses poetry, music and dance theater to bring the themes to life. For example, the Visual Arts category featured a filmmaker whose production was a film about the impact of climate change on the cultivation of coconuts, a subsistence crop on the coast.
The festival took place at the Pallet Café in Diani on the south coast of Kenya, an inclusive beachfront restaurant where the audience – students, invited guests and members of the local community – sit on mats, lessons or benches on the beach. Watch the performances in a very informal environment.
The performance is highly interactive and the audience laughs, cries and comments as “Marine” characters express their frustration with the background music of drums setting the mood.
Mary Favor, who plays a mangrove character, sings a melodious tune that captures the audience’s attention in her unique costume, a jumpsuit with stripes of green rags down the arms and chest. She is painted green around her eyes, the same color as her braided hair. It stands out as a mangrove tree.
The songs used in the production were written by the artists during the residency, where everyone was expected to come up with an artwork. These were later put together by the game master to form a meaningful piece.
“I played the mangroves and my role was important because I feel like sometimes we ignore the vital function of mangrove forests. We simplified it to let communities know that as the marine ecosystem is interdependent, they are home to all sea creatures including fish,” Ms Favor said after her performance.
She said they used skits to break down scientific data for the common person in the community. They also use simple language and dramatic costumes to communicate with children as well.
Right on the beach
The cast designed the costumes, which were sewn by a seamstress. The beachfront venues, all chosen because they are collaborative, site-specific and open to the community without restriction. I interviewed her on the “set,” a beach littered with marine debris but set up to represent all continents. Ngorobi said this is important to illustrate the scale of pollution around the world. “I wanted this to be provocative and make people realize our world is garbage.
“If someone asks you to point out your country, would you be proud to touch a used plastic bag or net?” she poses.
She said you’d rather touch the ocean, which is blue and clear. “But how long?”
She said the backdrop symbolizes that the garbage in the ocean doesn’t come from the sea, but from the continents where people live.
To get the community to watch the play, she used community opinion leaders.
art and science speak
The festival also included an Arts and Science Lecture where researchers, physicians and experts debated with artists to see how to bridge the communication gap for the benefit of the community.
The performances and talks aimed to challenge communities to action and stimulate conversations about climate change and the sustainability of the blue economy.
For 10 days of the walking festival, there was an art exhibition through Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties, whose populations depend heavily on the ocean for their livelihood. The festival targeted both urban and rural communities along the Kenyan coast.
Ms. Ngorobi is an art grantee from Bakanal De Afrique.
“I wanted it to be as relatable as possible. In Watamu, for example, we did our performance on the beach in the middle of mangrove forests. So the fishermen watched the entire performance and later said through our engagement that they understood the concept,” Ms. Ngorobi said.
She said a fisherman confessed to killing turtles for meat but promised to stop learning the potential impact of his actions.
Larger audience reach
The play will be performed in English, Swahili and Mijikenda languages to reach a wider audience. She said the idea is to bring information that lives online to fishermen. She was pleased that communities were responding with their own concerns about the disappearance of mangroves and fish stocks and discussions about how to replenish them through local initiatives.
The festival is taking place for the second time after last year.
Ms. Ngorobi explains similar activities, and enhanced art performances are expected to take place over the next three years as the festival is a five-year project.