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Environmental Protest Aesthetics as Decolonial Worlding

From the kristang in Melaka to Fridays for Future

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
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Monika Arnez Palacký University Czech Republic Olomouc

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Abstract

This article makes the case for environmental protest aesthetics as part of a decolonial worlding that encompasses a variety of relational performative acts through which creative resistance to colonialism, capitalism, and resource exploitation is staged. These acts are understood as relational because in their graphics, image-text events in social media, and in their appearances at street protests, they refer to a system that they seek to subvert. The case studies drawn on are Fridays for Future, Klima Action Malaysia and the kristang community in Melaka. Inspired by research on worlding, the aesthetics of protest and performative acts these case studies are examined as manifestations of different facets of decolonial worlding, with a particular focus on the production and dissemination of visual material in the context of environmental protest.

Abstract

This article makes the case for environmental protest aesthetics as part of a decolonial worlding that encompasses a variety of relational performative acts through which creative resistance to colonialism, capitalism, and resource exploitation is staged. These acts are understood as relational because in their graphics, image-text events in social media, and in their appearances at street protests, they refer to a system that they seek to subvert. The case studies drawn on are Fridays for Future, Klima Action Malaysia and the kristang community in Melaka. Inspired by research on worlding, the aesthetics of protest and performative acts these case studies are examined as manifestations of different facets of decolonial worlding, with a particular focus on the production and dissemination of visual material in the context of environmental protest.

1 Introduction

The introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG s) and the 2030 Agenda were introduced on the premise that world leaders want to save the planet from destruction. Measures against climate change are anchored in SDG 13: take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. However, many environmental activists believe that politicians across the globe have not implemented adequate policies to stop climate change. The Fridays for Future (FFF) movement, which started with Greta Thunberg’s strike in front of the Swedish Parliament in August 2018, has declared war on climate change and given it a young face. Today, the movement aims to “put moral pressure on policymakers, to make them listen to the scientists, and then to take forceful action to limit global warming.”1 This young movement has succeeded in drawing international attention to the issues of environmental crisis and climate justice. These young people feel that they are unfairly suffering the repercussions of something that members of older generations have caused. This justifies their solidarity with vulnerable populations who have to bear the consequences of climate change, prolonged droughts, fires, typhoons and flooding caused mainly in prosperous Western countries.

In Malaysia, the hitherto relatively small environmental movement has gained momentum through the Fridays for Future movement, increasing the chances of groups like Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) to gain more public attention for the fight against climate change. This climate action group based in Kuala Lumpur, chaired by Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, was founded just half a year after the FFF was established, in April 2019.

Despite the commonalities with the global youth movement—such as the demand for binding measures to limit the temperature increase to below 2 degrees—locally active organisations dealing with ecological challenges set their own accents. One of the problems KAMY members are addressing is the haze created by burning the forest during the cultivation of palm oil plantations, which regularly envelops Malaysia and its neighbouring countries in thick smoke and endangers people’s health. Burning of forests and peat soils causes the release of CO2, and likewise the establishment of plantations is associated with less CO2 storage capacity than forests and peat soils. They are advocating for vulnerable populations that are particularly affected by the consequences of climate change. Other, yet smaller initiatives in Malaysia have also taken advantage of the increased global attention on environmental protection to focus on local environmental problems. In this article, I explore one of them, the Portuguese-Melaka kristang community, which has been struggling against the creation of artificial islands in Melaka.

An important element of protest movements is the aesthetics they use for their actions. They have the potential to provide “substantive meaning and creative expression to the massive mobilisations of young people (…)”, as noted for other protest movements such as the Arab Spring (Werbner, Webb and Spellman-Poots 2014, 9). The choice of aesthetic components that fit each group’s intended message, on social media, in their web presence, and in their street protest activities, shapes the way they mobilise. For non-violent environmental protest movements, examples include the creative use on social media of illustrations, text and images, and infographics about the causes of climate change, as well as symbols of the death of livelihoods such as coffins in street protests.

This contribution is innovative in several ways. First, the issues against which the protests are directed, namely climate change, the profound transformation of the environment through plantation cultivation and the construction of artificial islands, are understood as colonial worlding that brings into the world and sustains asymmetrical power structures, the circulation and exploitation of labour power and the overexploitation of natural resources. Second, it shows how the three non-violent protest movements analysed in this article, the kristang community, KAMY and the FFF, develop a common theme of decolonial worlding in their protest aesthetics through a variety of performative acts. In doing so, they creatively resist the colonial worlding expressed in climate change, the harmful effects of the plantation economy, and the construction and imitation of iconic artificial island projects. These acts can be understood as relational because they refer to a system they seek to subvert in their graphics, image-text events on social media, and appearances at street protests. Their performativity is characterised by the experimental nature of the artistic shaping of resistance (Derman 2017, 12). Third, the impact of these movements is assessed in terms of their identity-forming and solidarity value and their effect, based on scholarly literature on protest aesthetics (Korkut et al. 2019) and resistance (Laszczkowski 2019; Prasse-Freeman 2022).

This paper is based on empirical data collected during field research in Melaka in the summers of 2018 and 2019 among members of the kristang community. This field research aimed to better understand the kristang community’s resistance to the creation of artificial islands in the immediate vicinity of their settlement. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to conduct an online analysis of environmental initiatives. In doing so, I relied on visual and textual material disseminated via Twitter, Youtube, and print media about KAMY and the FFF to better situate the kristang protest aesthetics in the Malaysian and ultimately global context of environmental protests.

The first two sections provide the theoretical framework for this article, and the subsequent part analyses the aesthetics of protest and their respective effects in the three selected cases. The article concludes with a synthesis of the results.

2 Colonial Worlding

Post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has shaped scholarship on worlding (Spivak 1985). Inspired by Heidegger, she conceives of worlding as the process of bringing the colonial powers’ claim to power to the world, based on the premise that the ‘Third World’ is an ‘uninscribed earth’ to be worked and shaped. The coloniser is thus “worlding his own world”, to the detriment of the native people on whose land he does so (Spivak 1985, 253).

In this article, colonial worlding is understood as bringing into the world and sustaining asymmetrical power structures, the circulation and exploitation of labour power and the overexploitation of natural resources. Colonialists “worlding their own world” has cost the planet dearly, as the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2022) shows. It recently identified “colonialism” as one of the past and present causes of climate change. The plantation industry has been referred to as “plantationocene” (Haraway 2015), a term that captures the profound changes in landscapes caused by the plantation economy and the systematic exploitation of workers.

The third example of colonial worlding pertains to how iconic infrastructure brands are adopted. In Roy and Ong’s (2011) work on the dynamics of worlding in Asian cities, Haines (2011, 173, 177) shows that cities across the globe are trying to adopt the ‘Dubai brand’, which is associated with the idea that the streets there are made of gold. Such projects target a particular clientele, namely wealthy people, and tend to exclude the less well-off. A case in point is the artificial island project Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, where large amounts of sand have been piled up to form islands that are shaped like palm trees and are seen as the epitome of Dubai’s creativity and ambition. Developers have imitated this model, for example, in Melaka, a world heritage city facing the Melaka Straits. The developers of the Melaka Gateway, an artificial islands project, replicated in their plans the sail-shaped building of Dubai’s most famous hotel, the Burj Al Arab, overlooking Palm Jumeirah, in a central location.

The imitation of the aesthetics of artificial island projects like the Palm Jumeirah is indicative of colonial worlding that is prompted by the desire to achieve the status of a world-class city. Elitist actors looking for ways to make profits, enhance the respective city, and make it more attractive are often the driving force behind such development projects. The actors of the three non-violent movements that are the focus of this article oppose such colonial structures with their environmental protest aesthetics.

3 Environmental Protest Aesthetics as Decolonial Worlding

This article argues for understanding the aesthetics of environmental protest as part of a decolonial worlding that encompasses a variety of performative acts through which creative resistance to colonialism, capitalism and resource exploitation can be made. The term is inspired by Fabian’s (1990) proposition that culture is created through performance. The performative acts through which they stage creative resistance against colonialism, extractivism, and capitalism include visual and textual expressions, from graphics, including infographics, video clips and short documentaries, to various text-image posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Amber, in her work on artists and activists in the USA and Canada, has conceived of decolonial worlding as “the myriad acts of creative resistance that emerge in generative opposition to colonialism, capitalism, and extractivism”, and the “collective aesthetics of decolonial worlding” as the result of “visual manifestations of environmental justice and self determination” (Amber 2018, xi, 4). Replacing “myriad” with “performative” is relevant in order to be able to focus on the artistic vehicle for achieving their goals, the creative acts, and their performance.

Activists of environmental protests play a mostly temporarily fixed role; they decide for themselves when and where to creatively engage with their protests, partly through individual contributions, but mostly as part of a collective. Environmental protests exhibit elements of theatre, following a script whose core components are familiar to activists and the public. They take place on- and offline and are recognisable through their repetition and creative variation, reflecting the experimental nature of the artistic shaping of resistance (Derman 2017, 12).

Belonging to the group plays an important role in protest aesthetics, involving the question of how “political voice communicates resistance and solidarity” (Korkut et. al 2019, 17). How protesters choose aesthetic components and what kind of protest they opt for depends on the means at their disposal, the respective claims they want to make, their alliances and the effects they expect.

The aesthetics of the performative acts of the three movements have a political character and aim to change existing orders to decolonise the world. “Decolonial worlding” is processual; it takes place through the initiation of something new that draws its power from the demarcation of colonial structures and produces measurable effects in the world. Hence, the question is justified as to what effects these movements generate. Recent research on resistance points out that looking at demonstrators’ actions alone is not enough to uncover their effects. Following this line of argument, it may well be that the influence of protesters remains within their boundaries and does not extend beyond their community. Prasse-Freeman (2022, 107) writes: “signs of repudiation, rejection and rebellion [may] signify nothing beyond [activists’] own community of militants.”

An “inward” effect of such movements may well be strengthening feelings of solidarity and collective identities, which, as Laszczkowski (2019, 505) notes, is fostered by narrativisation. The outward effect, however, may be determined by the reach and greater leverage of a movement. The following sections will demonstrate that the three movements show considerable differences in these respects.

4 Of Coffins and Statues: Resisting Artificial Island Building in Melaka

You know, I see so many things that have gone because it’s destructive, this reclamation is so destructive. They just don’t look into the coastal population. (…) you know, what comes after that is flash floods, clogged drains, smelly waterway, you know, and all these bad things. Damage to the environment. You know, the damage even to the coastline. So, I don’t know. If that is development, I think it is not sustainable.2

Martin Theseira, a kristang community member and chairman of the Save Portuguese Community Action Committee (SPCAC), has been resisting the creation of artificial islands for decades. In addition to the negative effects that he mentions in this quote, in our conversations he pointed to several other negative consequences such as siltation, a decline in fish stocks and making it difficult for the remaining fishermen in Ujong Pasir on the coast to go about their business. His concerns tie in with Sarkissian’s observation that “(…)pollution and massive land reclamation projects have virtually destroyed the shrimp-breeding grounds, so that fishing for a living is a dying occupation.” (Sarkissian 2002, 218) Above all, however, Martin did not believe that the kristang who live in a settlement of around 1200 houses will benefit from the Melaka Gateway project created near their settlement.

He voiced his concern that children and teenagers in the settlement no longer learn Papia Kristang, Melaka Portuguese Creole, and that the language is slowly dying out. People in the settlement speak a mixture of Malay, English, and Papia Kristang, but the latter seems to be mainly used among the older generation. According to recent estimates, about 500 people still speak Papia Kristang, often older people (Spolsky 2018, 71). For young people, the settlement is not very attractive because there are not many job opportunities, so many of them have left for Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. For example, Flora, a community member, a widow of a fisherman with 11 grown-up children, told me how she often visits her children in Kuala Lumpur.3

Marriage between kristang men and women originating from China or India are frequent in the settlement. Most residents profess the Roman Catholic faith, making them a minority in Melaka, where the majority adhere to the Islamic faith. In ethnic terms, they are classified as “others”. According to information provided by the Malaysian government, of the 872,900 people who lived in Melaka in 2015, 63.3 % were Malays, 24.6 % Chinese, 5.9 % Indians, 1.3 % other bumiputeras,4 and 0.5 % others (Portal Rasmi Kerajaan Negeri Melaka 2020).

Their minority status and concern about losing further political voice were two reasons for the coffin protests in July 2018 in front of KAJ Development’s sales gallery. KAJ Development was the master developer of the Melaka Gateway, launched by former prime minister Najib Razak in February 2014. The plan was to create three artificial islands and extend one natural island. New infrastructure in the form of a cruise terminal, a deep-sea port, tourism and entertainment facilities and commercial areas were to be created.5

In July 2018, members of the kristang community staged protests in front of the developer’s sales gallery. As an essential part of their protest, they carried three coffins to express the idea that the creation of man-made islands means the end of the livelihood of the remaining fishermen of the community. When I later talked to community leaders about the protest during my fieldwork, they referred to the event as a ‘mock funeral’.

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Figure 1

Coffin protests, 17 July, 2018

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenhot Thestar.com. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/07/18/coffin-protest-by-melaka-portuguese-community-was-a-desperate-survival-call/, last accessed 24 June 2022

Figure 1 shows one of the community members lying in a coffin where sand had been strewn. The sand in the coffin serves to draw a parallel with the developer sprinkling sand into the rice pots of the residents, which Peter Gomes,6 the former village head (regidor), also pointed out in an interview with me. This mock funeral performance echoes other protests in the past in Malaysia where coffins were used as an expression of a threat, of an imminent end to an element of Malaysian culture. In 1967, the protesters, for example, had used the symbol of the keranda (coffin) to mark the death of Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, which states that the only official language is Malay. On 3 March 1967, the protesters in Kuala Lumpur demonstrated against the passage of the National Language Act, which extended the use of English in government, although under Article 152 this was to be temporary and not to be extended.

In contrast to these protests, what was at stake for the kristang is not the endangerment of Malay culture but of their ethnic minority, the livelihood of the fishermen and the community’s relationship to the sea. The cross on the sealed coffins, which were opened in a next step and in which more community members lay down, was used as an epitome of their belonging to the Catholic community, in contrast to the other keranda protests. Moreover, the decoration of one of the coffins with a hibiscus, Malaysia’s national flower, symbolically revealed that the unity of Malaysia’s ethnic groups, for which this flower stands, was threatened.

Another more indirect form of protest was the erection of a statue in the Portuguese settlement modelled after the 2017 art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

At the time when I was doing field research in the Portuguese settlement, the construction work had not yet been fully completed. The statue itself was already finished, but it was still encased in concrete and fenced because they thought it looked neater and was less prone to damage. A voluntary team was formed, the ‘Portuguese settlement construction team’, which worked on the statue on weekends in its spare time. The following quote from an interview with one of the volunteer construction workers reveals that the statue illustrates their close relationship to God:

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Figure 2

Statue of Christ the Redeemer

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

That is something that just runs through our blood, you know? We were born as Catholics, so anything that resembles Jesus is part of our culture, of our religion. It has been with us since childhood. So, this is something which we will always treasure.7

In the face of artificial islands built close to the settlement, the creation of the statue can be seen as part of a territorialisation and resistance strategy against large-scale development even though no protests directly accompanied the construction of the statue. It underlines the community’s bond with the Portuguese-speaking Catholic world and symbolically confirms it to the outside world.

In these two examples, the environmental protest aesthetic is part of decolonial worlding as manifested in a series of performative acts through which community members resist colonialism, capitalism, and resource exploitation. They refer to and creatively transform the keranda protests, and they refer to the statue of Jesus the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. While the 1967 keranda protests were held in Kuala Lumpur, in the heart of the nation, the second demonstration drawn on here was held in Melaka, a comparatively small city in Malaysia. With the performative act that entails the arrangement of coffin, human, sand, and hibiscus, the kristang community members have made a political statement against the artificial island formation. The creative arrangement supports the threat to their identity, expressed in part through their Catholic faith—rather than through the language of the majority, as in the case of the Article 152 Keranda protests. The language on the banners is part of the aesthetic in the sense of Korkut et. al. (2019); it is, on the one hand, an appeal to the Melaka state government to provide assistance, and on the other hand, an appeal to the developer, who has become the epitome of perceived injustice and poor planning, to stop creating land from the seabed.

The statue can be seen as part of an effort to “reorder from the global periphery” (Burns, Fast, Lavenda and Miller 2021, 462), yet through creative means. This attempt at reordering is part of a territorialisation strategy through which the kristang seek to assert their claims to the land of their settlement. They also try to assert their place in the Muslim majority society by visually expressing their religious affiliation with Roman Catholicism and their religious and cultural affiliation with members of the Portuguese-speaking world in Brazil by replicating the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro.

Apart from a few reports in the media, the coffin protests have not had a lasting effect in terms of public resonance. However, the shared visual language of the protest aesthetics has had an identity-forming and solidarity function, which has encouraged the community to set visible signs for their preservation. The statue is such a visible signifier that claims to bring about changes in the long term, carving out a space for the Portuguese-Malay community in Melaka and preventing further plans of land appropriation.

The statue also had strong public reverberations, although they were not placed in the context of building artificial islands. Shortly after community members had erected it, there were rumours that it should be demolished again. While one would rather assume the offensiveness of a Catholic symbol in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the reason given was that the construction of the work had begun before the Melaka Historic City Council (MBMB) had given its approval, as noted in the New Straits Times of 22 November 2017. As a result, the local council stopped the work and issued demolition orders. The community leaders were then given until 1 January 2018 to relocate the statue. Yet, possibly also because chief minister Idris Haron tried to find an amicable solution to the issue and personal ties of a community member, Joseph Sta Maria, to the Melaka Historic City Council, as reported by The Star on 6 November 2017, the relocation did not take place. A recent study based on interviews with young academic tourists to this statue in the Portuguese settlement finds that, despite the controversies in the media, the statue has been positively responded to and is seen as an expression of the cultural heritage of the Portuguese community (Keith, Fu and Lee 2021).

5 Infographics and Human-Nature Interactions: Klima Action Malaysia

In contrast to members of the kristang community, who have protested the creation of artificial islands and have raised their political voice on their own behalf, Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) is an advocacy group speaking on behalf of vulnerable people suffering the consequences of climate injustice, mostly orang asli, indigenous people in Malaysia. A central theme of its work is the campaign against the haze emanating from the burning of oil palm plantations and forests, which regularly envelops Malaysia and its neighbouring countries in thick smoke:

We want to increase the visibility of climate crisis in Asian countries and the Global South with a focus from Malaysia. This is a time to show that climate crisis is not only about icebergs, glaciers, it’s also about the forest fires. It’s really important because there is a lot of haze, the pollution that we are breathing right now is simply poison (…). It’s not the future, it’s right now.8

Their focus on calling politicians to action on the haze problem in Malaysia is also evident in the image they chose for their Twitter account, which shows protesters in Malaysia outside a mosque holding up banners such as ‘Health Emergency’ or ‘Borneo is burning’. They aim to give a voice to those who have so far been underrepresented in the climate movement as a way of effectively countering the dominance of older white men in the climate movement in Western countries (KAMY 2021).

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Figure 3

Infographic about the impacts of the Penang South Reclamation Project

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenshot KAMY website. https://en.klimaactionmalaysia.org/infographics, last accessed 24 June 2022

In comparison to the kristang, KAMY makes more intensive use of the social media to spread their message, being well represented on Twitter and Instagram. They use text-image events on Twitter where they refer to and comment on images circulating in the media, such as photos or short video clips taken with a mobile phone of floods in Malaysia. Nevertheless, the call here is directly on the Malaysian government to push for climate reparations, requiring that richer countries compensate poorer countries for the loss and damage caused by climate change. Their members see climate literacy as an important part of their work and in the course of this they have created a large number of infographics, including ones on the creation of artificial islands in Malaysia. They have voiced criticism of the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project in Penang, which includes the development of three artificial islands, one of which is supposed to become a green industrial park. In this case, they have also chosen the medium of infographics to educate vulnerable groups about the dangers of artificial island-making. Their reasons for opposing the project are that it is estimated to generate 3.2 million tons of carbon per year which equals annual carbon emissions of 640,000 cars (see Figure 3).

These infographics follow some of the typical patterns of branding climate activism: “bright colours, big-to-the-point text, and a point of view worthy of shares and likes” (Gaillot 2021), because these parameters increase the likelihood that the infographics will be aligned with social algorithms and thus achieve higher popularity. While Gaillot mainly refers to an increase in infographics at the last COP26 conference and their use by companies that emit CO2 on a large scale, this trend is also visible in other climate activist organisations such as KAMY. The red colour for cars signals danger, the partial red colour of the indicated waves symbolises that the creation of artificial islands threaten the sea. The large, bold numbers draw the reader’s attention to the extent of the threat and the white colour for the project as well as part of the waves serves as a contrast.

Like other climate activist movements, the creation of video clips and documentaries is part of their aesthetic repertoire. In KAMY’s documentary titled ‘Climate Change in Malaysia: Before it is too late’, which has been available on Youtube since July 2021, they draw attention to the increasing heat and floods in Malaysia as well as industrial emissions and the creation of man-made islands as causes of climate change. In one scene, it is shown how sand is sprayed through a pipe to a land reclamation site. The text accompanying the image stems from a quote from Matthew Ashfold from the University of Nottingham, Head of the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, who is included as a climate expert here: “So, it’s like an analogy; a bucket that we are slowly dripping water into. And it’s slowly filling up. The water filling up is like the warming of the climate.”

What seems to be even more important is their emphasis on the participation of women and young people in the struggle, in contrast to the kristang community, where the resistance against the creation of man-made islands was mainly led by men and the inclusion of young people in their struggle did not seem to be a key issue. On its website, KAMY proudly asserts that 70 percent of their members are women, and 80 percent are below the age of 25.

By emphasising this composition of members, they are reversing the established power structures in Malaysia, as only 14.9 per cent of members in the national parliament were women in 2020, and young people under 25 are rarely part of the political system. Drawing on a young, female pool of members is part of their effort to decolonise the planet, the climate movement and climate science (KAMY 2021). The deliberate choice of reversing the common patterns of the gender/youth balance in political decision-making processes serves to give these underrepresented groups a political voice. Decolonial worlding is revealed in the graphic in Figure 4 which introduced an article about decolonising the climate advocacy movement.

Nature and man are intertwined in this graphic. The two hands, their fingers interwoven, form loops enclosing an eye, the centre of the picture, and part of the yellow flower surrounding it. Part of the aesthetics of human-environment interactions is the easily flowing transition between the human hands, the loops, and the flower. The boundary between the human being and the flower are crossed as they both merge and become part of the other.

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Figure 4

Graphic on climate justice

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenshot KAMY website. https://en.klimaactionmalaysia.org/, last accessed 24 June 2022.

The caption merging into the hand on the left side and into the flower on the right shows that climate justice encompasses people and nature and that the transitions between them are also fluid. The relational character of this image comes about through reference to known repertoires of human-nature relations based on centre-periphery understandings. In the system that KAMY rejects, the eye, which symbolises the central position of power of man in the capitalist system, would stand alone in a central position, and the flower, which symbolises nature, would stand in a subordinate position. According to the expectation of the recipient side, the human eye, not the flower, would dominate; here, however, both are in the centre of the image. This aesthetic decision to transgress the established boundaries between humans and plants is a performative act through which KAMY places plants on an equal footing with humans and gives them a political voice. It seeks to create a new social order that emphasises the importance of solidarity with the non-human.

KAMY has made an effort by amplifying calls for “delivering on loss and damage”. While focusing on environmental issues in Malaysia, they were also among the signatories of over 300 organisations to an “open letter to world leaders”, calling on them to “deliver on loss and damage”.9 The Glasgow Climate Pact, the outcome of COP26, the UN 2021 climate change conference, responded to this call through an agreement to support the Santiago Network, which aims to provide climate-vulnerable countries with resources, technical equipment, and knowledge. It has also strengthened the discourse around indigenous groups having more influence on the climate change discourse, focusing on Malaysia. Its deputy chairperson Hailey Tan gave several interviews during the conference, including on the orang asli, who were not represented themselves but only through their woven artwork on display, which they used to draw attention to the harmful effects of deforestation and mega-infrastructure projects on the lives of the orang asli. Here KAMY advances the discourse about climate change in politics and society on a national and international level.

6 Embracing Them All: Fridays For Future (FFF)

The reason why I include the FFF as the last example in this paper is that large, global protest movements set standards for the aesthetics of protests, as their diverse forms of expression, manifested in such things as images, video clips, texts, banners, infographics, and maps, are widely disseminated in social media and mass media. KAMY, for example, was launched only half a year after the FFF was kicked off by Greta Thunberg protesting in front of the Swedish parliament for three weeks in August 2018 and is likely to have been inspired by it.

The FFF has become particularly well known due to its global presence, large number of protests and intense social media and print media coverage. In the summer of 2018, Greta set out to call politicians to action to stop climate change and drastically reduce carbon emissions, prompted by the drought and fires in Sweden in the summer of 2018. She mobilised students around the world to organise Friday school strikes to get politicians to fight climate change, and by November 2019 many teenagers across the globe had responded to her calls, with strikes taking place in more than 130 countries.

Social and cultural anthropologists have looked at different facets of this movement. Eriksen (2021) zooms in on the liminality of the young people, their ‘in-between state’, their not yet firm integration into the established order, which makes it more likely for them to look at it critically and eventually change it. As far as their effect is concerned, the question that preoccupies him is the longevity of the movement which at the same time also raises the question of its persistence: “The follow-up question is whether their engagement for radical climate politics is merely a phase they are passing through or a permanent stance.” (Eriksen 2021)

Vaughn (2021, 213) addresses potential criticisms of the FFF, pointing out that by using selective imagery, such as of melting icebergs, the FFF has created certain narratives that, she warns, can perpetuate the notion that climate change expertise comes from the global North and eclipse efforts to adapt to climate change as expressed in local popular artwork, films, photographs, and stories. However, looking at some of the examples posted on Twitter, this concern seems to be largely unfounded in the case of the FFF. An important element to prevent this impression is that the FFF provides a platform for its international groups from the Global South, such as Fridays For Future MAPA, which represent areas across the Global South, to present their views on climate change. Judging from a public statement by KAMY, the FFF is seen as part of their common struggle, as other young people like Greta Thunberg “have joined this struggle” (KAMY 2021).

Moreover, Vaughn (2021, 215) addresses another aspect of the FFF that concerns its protest aesthetics, the image of the crowd as the “hallmark of climate activism”, which, as she points out, influences the way we think about climate change in a certain direction through the choice of narrative. Yet, she leaves open whether or until when this image represents climate activism. In line with their self-image as a climate-strike movement, the image of the crowd is certainly a central one in the coverage of the FFF, but this is not a recipe for success although it is very common for protest movements across the globe. In the search for explanations for why particular protest images are impactful, Fasnacht (2021, 225) has pointed to those that are meant to represent civil disobedience and to disrupt the order of things, and are “narratively engaging and dramatizing”. I concur and go on to argue that, especially in the beginning when Greta began the movement on her own, part of this dramatisation was that she anticipated the desired change through careful, effective design. The image in Figure 5 that also Fasnacht (2021) refers to, obviously not a crowd image, is impactful for other reasons.

In this example of Greta Thunberg sitting in front of the Swedish parliament, protesting for the sake of the climate, the interplay of image and text decisively changes the function of the place of school through clever contrasting: the text on the poster turns the school, which is considered a place of learning, into a place of strike. The words ‘SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET’ (‘school strike for the climate’) evokes the image of many young people—in contrast, in the picture there is only one individual, Greta, who started the strike. The grey colour of the wall in front of which Greta is sitting is overlaid by her colourful clothes, which can be interpreted as an anticipation of desired change, the replacement of established climate policies with new ones. But what strikes the viewer most is Greta’s intense gaze, her serious face and body language that suggest determination and perseverance. Her intense gaze establishes a relationship with the viewer and has the character of an appeal.

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Figure 5

Greta Thunberg in front of the Swedish Parliament

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenshot website curious.earth. https://curious.earth/blog/greta-thunberg-quotes-best-21/, last accessed 24 June 2022.

The careful orchestration of this image can be seen as one of the performative acts of decolonial worlding through which Greta shows her creative resistance against colonialism, capitalism, and resource exploitation. Its effectiveness has led to the young woman who was sitting with a banner becoming part of the repertoire of the protest aesthetic in the global climate justice movement.

Looking at the content the FFF has posted on Twitter, one is struck by the deliberate selection and engagement with images showing the impact of the climate crisis that are already circulating in the media. To reveal the deadly nature of climate change, the FFF posted images of natural disasters, such as damage caused by the Cyclone Amphan posted on Twitter on 30 May 2021, smoke over Canada caused by heat waves (8 July 2021), and the floods in West Germany (16 July 2021).

The following two examples show how decolonial worlding is expressed through the moral implications of the interplay between image and text on the FFF’s Twitter; both must be considered together as constitutive elements. A case in point is the representation of the floods in Germany in the summer of 2021 when the FFF retweeted a Fridays For Future MAPA tweet.

In this tweet, an aerial view of the floods is shown, linked to the CNN headline “European officials say that ‘climate change has arrived (…)’.” The relational nature of this tweet stems from the visual reference to the floods, which are meant to illustrate the visible scale of destruction, and the textual reference to invisible decisions made by fossil fuel companies and wealthy Northern leaders. The text and image together make the statement that climate change has been around for a long time, not just today, and that now the Global North is feeling the consequences. The message to the fossil fuel companies and the rich leaders of the Global North is that this destruction is caused by their moral failure to address climate change, and it is the result of what they have caused by their inaction.

The final example I would like to draw attention to is a graphic that calls for a global climate strike on 25 March 2022. The visual part of the tweet shows three young women, a young man and an axolotl, a species that is critically endangered. A commonality between the demonstrators is visually signalled using similar colours for their clothing (blue and pink) even if the style of the clothes ranges from business-fashionable to informal, suggesting solidarity. With their slightly different skin tones, from white to brown, they represent different groups of the FFF across the globe.

Here, the performative act through which decolonial worlding manifests itself is the aesthetic choice of material objects, the instruments the protesters are carrying: a megaphone, a book and a gas mask, the latter having often been used in protests against air pollution, i.e. through the burning of forest and palm oil plantations. The megaphone is the material manifestation of their goal to call people to action, to “be loud”, while the book can be seen as both a symbol of knowledge and a pragmatic tool for note-taking. The gas mask is a symbol of worsening air pollution, especially from environmental changes caused by palm oil plantations, such as the haze resulting from deforestation and destruction of peatlands. The gas mask is used to accuse the authorities, who are held responsible for the air pollution, of immorality.

d55073079e715

Figure 6

Flooding in Germany, July 2021

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenshot Fridays for Future Twitter account. https://twitter.com/fridays4future, last accessed 5 April 2022

In a similar way as KAMY, this graphic uses a reference to nature to subvert existing power relations. The reference to the axolotl, which is visually equated with man, serves to give the axolotl a political voice. The spatial arrangement of humans/animals in the image, another part of the environmental protest aesthetic as decolonial worlding, shows the intended social restructuring in which endangered species are positioned on an equal level with humans. By placing the axolotl at the side of the young man, it is given a role equal to that of a human being, and it becomes a protagonist in the common struggle. At the same time, it is symbolic of the FFF’s wish to speak on behalf of the oppressed, both wildlife and human beings. This message is underlined by the text where they request policymakers to put emphasis on people, not profit. The emphasis on inclusion is even strengthened by the fact that the designer of the protest image, @namevdelang, self-identifies as an autistic climate activist.

d55073079e741

Figure 7

Calls for global climate strike, January 2022

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 21, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15700615-02102011

Source: Screenshot Fridays for Future Twitter account. https://twitter.com/fridays4future, last accessed 5 April 2022

7 Conclusion

This paper has shown how the protest aesthetics of the non-violent environmental movement, using examples of the kristang community, KAMY, and the FFF, can be understood as an integral part of decolonial worlding. A common goal of these different groups is to break away from colonial power structures manifested in the exploitation of natural resources and exclusion of people. This colonial worlding manifests itself in examples where colonial structures, extractivism, and power asymmetries coincide, as in climate change, the environmental impacts of the plantation economy, and the construction and emulation of artificial islands to claim new territory. The activists counter “colonial worlding” with “decolonial worlding”, to bring an alternative social order into the world based on moral demands, the elimination of power asymmetries, better representation of vulnerable groups, and, in the case of FFF and KAMY, also non-humans. The respective actors move in and across physical and online spaces to achieve this goal.

Shedding light on the concern of worlding scholars with interreferencing between cities (Roy and Ong 2011; Haines 2011) and showcasing the emulation of artificial island aesthetics as colonial worlding, the paper has then zoomed in on decolonial worlding to unravel the environmental protest aesthetics of the Fridays for Future movement, KAMY, and members of the kristang community. One common feature is that the members of these different movements have employed is the use of performative acts that derive their legitimacy from the perceived injustice of established power structures in geographic, ethnic, and gender terms. These acts reference familiar aesthetic repertoires that include images of disasters and coffins as expressions of protest; they also refer to well-known statues and endangered species. They are characterised by conscious decisions of protesters who play a temporally determined role in a theatre that follows a script.

Despite these parallels, there are differences in the way creative resistance is part of their struggle that relate to their respective political voice. Political voice “seeks to rupture dominant political cultural, and economic structures” (Korkut et. al 2019, 19). It aims to “uproot the system”, to use one slogan of the FFF, to replace the old system with a new, fairer one. An important question in political voice is who authorises whom to speak about what, with what motivation and with what potential effect. The FFF and KAMY, as pressure and advocacy groups, speak on behalf of larger groups of people who have been underrepresented, excluded or marginalised by the established system, such as indigenous people and women. It is the vision of creating an alternative social order based on more equal relationships between human beings, plants, and threatened species that the FFF shares with KAMY, as manifested in their creative resistance against capitalism, extractivism, and colonialism. By making these ideals important parts of their work, both in their protests and text-image events on social media, they anticipate the social change they desire. The kristang, in contrast, have mainly been concerned about the future of their own settlement and the preservation of their cultural heritage, including their language and traditions. As a minority in Malaysia with little political and social capital, their voice has been rather quiet so far, and young people have not yet played a major role in their struggle because many young people have left the community in Melaka.

As far as the aesthetics of the coffin protests are concerned, they echo previous coffin protests in Malaysia, where protesters demonstrated against the increasing prominence of English in Malaysian shools and government, but they set their own accents by introducing visual markers associated with Roman Catholicism, seeking recognition as a religious minority. Moreover, even though some of their members have mentioned increasing heat and floods because of climate change, they do not consider themselves as part of the climate justice movement but as an environmental protection group.

Beyond the aesthetic repertoire of the three groups, the paper has looked at the effects they have produced to illustrate that worlding cannot just be a desired structure or attempt, but must manifest itself. Among the three cases analysed in this article, the kristang are the most territorial and inward-oriented. The public hardly noticed the coffin protests, but they have led to stronger cohesion, manifested in the statue’s construction, a visible statement of its territoriality and preservation of the community.

In contrast, the FFF clearly has the broadest global reach and the most significant impact. The inclusiveness of the movement, their approach of reaching out to youth groups from different backgrounds, including in poorer countries particularly affected by climate change, has had the function of amplifying political voices from the Global South demanding action on climate change from politicians. Greta Thunberg’s success story fuelled the movement. Starting as a single person protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament, she was able to kick off a global climate justice movement. This success story is symbolised in the picture included in this paper (Figure 5), which, through its effectiveness, spoke to others and prompted them to action.

KAMY contributes to amplifying the discourse on the need to address the severe consequences of climate change, deforestation, and the construction of artificial islands, both in Malaysia and internationally. Their representation at COP26, their advocacy for the orang asli, and their involvement in open letters, e.g. to world leaders to intervene against loss and damage, are small steps towards making a more significant impact in the long term together with other youth groups. Longitudinal studies of these groups, as suggested by Eriksen (2021), will hopefully reveal the long-term impact of such movements in terms of their political weight and the longevity of the protest aesthetics they created.

Acknowledgements

I thank Heinzpeter Znoj and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous version of this paper. This article has been developed within the European project CRISEA (2017-2020), Competing Regional Integrations in Southeast Asia, grant n. 770562. It has been written as part of the project “Sinophone Borderlands—Interaction at the Edges,” Reg. no. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000791. The author is an Excellence Researcher at Palacký University.

1

https://fridaysforfuture.org/what-we-do/who-we-are/

2

Interview with Martin Theseira, 9 August 2019, Portuguese settlement.

3

Interview with Flora, 31 August 2018, Portuguese Settlement.

4

Lit: sons of the soil; indigenous people.

5

In the meantime, the project has been abandoned, but on the horizon is a yet larger one, the Melaka Waterfront Economic Zone (M-WEZ).

6

Interview with Peter Gomes, 31 August 2019, Portuguese Settlement, Ujong Pasir.

7

Interview with voluntary construction worker, 05 June 2019, statue of Christ the Redeemer.

8

Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, co-founder of KAMY, as quoted in Radu (2019).

9

https://climatenetwork.org/cop26/cop26-must-deliver-on-loss-and-damage-finance/

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