The island nations of the Pacific are sinking. As global warming heats up the planet and melts the ice caps, rising seas are putting communities and cultures in physical, and even existential danger.
Roldy Aguero Ablao, an artist who grew up in Guam and lives in Seattle, is one of many Pacific Islanders personally affected by these changes. “My dad would teach me how to fish in the reef, to snorkel in coral reefs, but now when you go back today all those coral reefs are dying, and so these really rich habitats are disappearing in my lifetime,” he says. “I do wonder, if my island disappears, what would home look like?”
Ablao is the exhibit specialist behind We are the Ocean, a new installation at the Wing Luke Museum that will run until November 2017. The exhibit documents Pacific Islander responses to the existential threat of climate change through stories, poetry and visual art.
“I like to say it’s such a small room for such a big idea,” Ablao says. The exhibit is Ablao’s first project for the Wing Luke Museum, and was curated with the help and input of the community. It includes, he explains, “memories of water, memories of the ocean, how we feel the ocean is sacred, looking at Pacific deities, looking at canoe journeys, as a way to think about relationships.”
The exhibit is housed in a small room on the second floor of the museum. The walls are painted a deep blue. A series of vivid charcoal portraits of indigenous Micronesian people by artist Yvonne Neth sits next to a screen displaying a spinning visualization of the earth’s ocean currents. Created by NASA, it shows spirals and serpentine layers of white water currents disrupting the blue water. Art pieces made out of plastic trash fished out of the Pacific Ocean decorate the walls and ceiling. On one wall, more organic works of art made from woven palm fronds sit alongside poems and stories that touch on the power of the ocean.
Rachael Tamngin grew up in the Pacific Islander diaspora but says she is strongly connected to her ancestral home, the island of Yap (Wa‘ab), which lies just to the east of the Philippines in the federated states of Micronesia.
“It’s this full circle, the ocean—there’s no end to it, it’s connecting us,” she says. “It connects the old generations, the ancient generations, and our generation.” Tamngin, who contributed an oral history recording to the exhibit, recalls her father working the earth back in Yap, planting taro and other crops, and creating something his family could reap the bounty of years later.
Conservation as practiced by Pacific communities is another theme of the exhibit, according to curator Ablao. This includes the concept of legacy, and protecting future generations by leaving something behind for them.
“In the world today there’s this idea that we have exploitation and extraction—we take what we want from the earth and we don’t give back,” he says. “But with a lot of indigenous communities there’s this reciprocity—you only take what you need, and you give back more than you take.”
The exhibit intentionally relies on poetry and visual arts to talk about climate change, Roldy says, because “when you think about climate change it’s very scientific, it’s very much in your head. But we wanted to make you feel it.”
Natalie Bruecher, who is of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) heritage in the Polynesian part of the Pacific, agrees that stories are an important way to connect people to the topic of climate change. Like Tamngin, Bruecher lent her own voice and story to the oral histories showcased in the exhibit.
“I think one of the main points of this exhibit was taking the narrative of climate change away from the scientific, Western-dominated rhetoric about it, which is mostly facts and figures—and of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to balance it out with the stories,” she says. “For Pacific Islanders, the effects of climate change, it’s in our backyards, it’s in our front yards, it’s on our whole island.”
At the opening celebration for the exhibit at the Wing Luke, several people with deep personal connections to the Pacific told their stories at an open mic. A young woman of Tongan heritage talked about growing up in Seattle and feeling alienated by school, and later also struggling to fit in when she went back to live in Tonga. Eventually, with the help of accepting relatives, she learned to feel at home there, as well as whenever she sets foot in the ocean.
Patricia Eaonhawinon Allen, a Seattle poet and community organizer who served on We are the Ocean’s advisory committee and also provided an oral history interview, said developing the exhibit was almost “self-care time.” Allen, whose mixed heritage includes Mohawk, Alaska Native, Iroquois, Tlingit, and Black, talked about the common history between Pacific peoples, driven by canoe journeys that linked disparate cultures and lands.
“This exhibit really gives credit to our oral narratives, our traditions,” she said. “My family, we knew that we had been here before the Ice Age because it’s in our stories and it’s in our songs.”
Accompanied by a drum, Allen sang a killer whale song that she said can only be properly sung by someone who’s experienced paddling a canoe. Allen regularly goes on canoe journeys, much like her ancestors did as they braved the waters along the North American coast, and perhaps farther out into the ocean.
Some of the stories, poems, and artwork in the exhibit are more about celebrating the ocean than explicitly addressing climate change. But for Pacific Islanders for whom this is a life and death matter, maybe there’s not much difference. If the world doesn’t do something, Pacific cultures may be the first—but not the last—to lose their homelands, which are tied inextricably to their culture, history, and identity.
“A lot of people will sit here and say they don’t think it’s happening,” Tamngin says. “But it’s a matter of where you look and if you’re even willing to look for it, willing to open your eyes to it.”