Locating Blackness In Intimate Ecologies

Ama Josephine Budge on how to resist climate colonialism through a capacious, trans-temporal Blackness.

Torkwase Dyson, Liquid A Place, 2023. Homme Adams Park 72500 Thrush Road, Palm Desert at Desert X. Photography courtesy of Lance Gerber.

Torkwase Dyson, Liquid A Place, 2023. Homme Adams Park 72500 Thrush Road, Palm Desert at Desert X. Photography courtesy of Lance Gerber.

By Ama Josephine Budge

“For colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961, translated by Constance Farrington)

In order to think through a cartography of Black ecologies, it is necessary to remember that the relationship between Black subjectivity and the more-than-human remains contested. It is fraught with histories of colonial violence, with increasingly harsh climates, and with the haunting of dispossessed lands, lives, and lifeways; the rituals through which we lived, loved, killed, ate, decomposed, and dreamed together.

So much has been lost.
Yet so much remains.
Contested ground.

The artists who walk this blistering landscape rarely pass through unburnt and never emerge unchanged. We hold up our hands in blackening fields of women’s tongue trees and contemplate surrender. As multidisciplinary artist Alberta Whittle puts it in her film dealing with ecological, political, and racial turbulence, RESET (2020): “I am trying to learn how to heal.”

Alberta Whittle, RESET, 2020 (Film still). Video (Original shooting format: 4K, 2K and HD), 32 minutes. Edition of 3 plus 2 artist’s proofs. Co-produced and co-commissioned by Frieze and Forma for the Frieze Artist Award 2020. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow.

In Michaela Coel’s award-winning television series I May Destroy You, at a birthday party in a London council flat filled to bursting with Afro-diasporic people in their mid-twenties, a conversation is sparked by the announcement that Arabella (played by Coel), a young recently successful writer in between inspirations, has taken on a temp job advocating for a vegan brand called Happy Animals. Her friends, half laughing, half appalled, make fun of her as she discards fried chicken from her plate as off-brand yet insists the gig is just for the money. One friend, casually wearing a green t-shirt reading “Monkey in the Jungle,” sets off on a rant about “climateers” – read: white middle/upper-class vegan climate-change crusaders – harassing him to swap out his Mercedes for an electric car. He proclaims passionately: “Why must the white man chop at the neck, when the African’s only now beginning to swallow?”

There is no doubt that the proliferation of white, Western climate campaigners and supercilious vegan-conversionists, who apply little intersectional or decolonial discourse to their thinking about climate and responsibility, actively keep Black people out of the conversation. By refusing to acknowledge the entanglement between racial capitalism and global extractivism, while binding the “green lifestyle” up with classism, gentrification, and the ongoing “civilizing project,” they consistently make clear to us that the role of the Black body in climate campaigns is largely confined to aesthetics. Silent Black bodies as poster-children of drought and famine, of healthy eating campaigns in urban food-deserts, or as the subjects of large-format, high-resolution, anthropocentric docu-style photography.

Yet the reproduction of this argument within Black communities – that climate change has nothing to do with us, that essentially we already have enough to deal with – reinforces a damaging position. It binarizes ecocide and anti-Blackness,
as though the two were not ontologically, epistemologically, and cosmologically intertwined, both historically and in the present. “The emergence of the concept of ecology in American life is potentially of momentous relevance to the ultimate liberation of black people,” wrote Nathan Hare in a 1970 issue of the Black Scholar. “Yet blacks and their environmental interests have been so blatantly omitted that blacks and the ecology movement currently stand in contradiction to each other.” I urge us to ask ourselves the necessary question: Who profits from continued investment in extractive capitalism and disassociation from climate justice discourses? Who benefits from our silence, and who is doing the silencing? What is it that we are only now beginning to swallow?

What I want to draw particular attention to are the embodied ramifications of severing Black people from the more-than- human-world, of insisting that our relationships to the environments around us can only be produced through the violence of prison-industrial complexes, inner-city pollution, and food scarcity. Through the dehumanization of the Black body as labor-turned-capital within settler-colonial and postcolonial plantation economies. As if we weren’t a part of an ecology at all. What happens when we consider ourselves wholly unmoored, as aliens within an alien landscape?

There are many ways in which, and reasons why, intellectual and political climate change movements and conversations have been monopolized by white-universalism, especially in “the West.” It is not that Black people who aren’t engaged or don’t feel welcome in climate justice movements simply don’t care. It is that oppressed human and more-than-human ecologies have been systematically pitted against one another, sold the scarce scraps of a dream in which we can only benefit at others’ expense, a cis-heteronormative dream that denies the queer ecologies proliferating human and more-than-human socialities, a dream enabled by fossil fuels which “require sacrificial people and places,” as Naomi Klein has pointed out in the London Review of Books (2016). Tiffany Lethabo King writes in her book The Black Shoals (2019) on the oft-silenced convergences of Black and Indigenous histories and lives in settler-colonial America: “I do not believe that genocide and slavery can be contained. Neither has edges, yet each is distinct.”

And yet, from Lake Victoria to the Ganga River, from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Jamaican bauxite mines and Alberta’s tar sands, BIPOC-led environmental justice movements continue in earnest – whether or not they are recorded, publicized, platformed, funded, or invited to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and equivalent bodies. Across these trans-oceanic frontlines, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific-Islander communities navigate and resist the extreme ramifications of Western-man-made climate change, aka climate colonialism. As J.T. Roane and Justin Hosbey, writing on the waterways of the US South for Southern Cultures (2021), explain: “These spaces share a linked ecological and social history – and fate. They refract through the prism of coastal seas, highlighting the nature of anti-Black ecological violence, which began [here] with the domestic saltwater slave trade and endures in contemporary modes of oil-based extraction.”

Allison Janae Hamilton, Wacissa, 2019. Multi-Channel Installation in Times Square, New York, NY, April 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boe- sky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo credit: Tatyana Tenenbaum.

In the fifty-three years since Nathan Hare’s astute observations, much has changed in some quarters while others seem to regress and retract. New coal mines, oil rigs, and pipelines in direct conflict with Black survival are being approved and opened, yet other activist sites succeed in achieving both policy reforms and landmark cultural moments that have the power to change how Black people relate to ecologies altogether. In 2021 Allison Janae Hamilton took over New York City’s Time Square with her multichannel installation Wacissa, immersing shoppers, tourists, and workers in the rivers of North Florida, linked through the Wacissa Slave Canal. Hamilton pit those haunted landscapes against the heart of capitalism, insisting that the ecologies and economies of a settler-colonial America are inextricable from ecologies and economies of Black death and colonial violence – or, in the words of Christina Sharpe in In The Wake (2016): “antiblackness as total climate.”

It is within this slippery landscape of intermittent estrangement that my interdisciplinary exploration of sensual and erotic relations between Black people and the more-than-human seeks to (re)find a language for mutual implication, entanglement, kinship, queer multi-species relations, and liberated interspecies futures. I trace what I have termed “intimate ecologies” though a gathered archive of aesthetics, poetics, and speculations that speak the impossibility of Black bodies in pleasurable, grief-full, and humbling exchange. The concept of intimate ecologies is an invitation to an embodied conversation in a room where isolation has for so long been the status quo. A conversation acknowledging the complex and sometimes dissonant ways we negotiate climate and Blackness in our search for a liberatory Otherwise.

Torkwase Dyson’s large-scale, abstract painting and sculptural work expands our understandings of a capacious Blackness, engaging poetic and often fraught landscapes to “question what type of climates are born out of world building,” as described by her gallery, PACE. For me, Dyson’s brings to mind Chelsea M. Frazier’s text “Black Feminist Ecological Thought: A Manifesto” (2020), which suggests that “Black women’s ecological inclinations [are] rooted in a[n] ecological world-sense completely alternative to what readily comes to mind when we think about the environment.”

Manthia Diawara, A Letter from Yene (still), 2022. Film. Commissioned by Serpentine, MUBI and PCAI Polygreen Culture & Art Initiative, as part of Serpentine’s Back to Earth project. Courtesy of the artist and Maumaus / Lumiar Cité, Lisbon.

“It’s the fault of man,” says Senegalese Lebou fisherman Aliou Diouf against a backdrop of semi-solid-plastic-filled Atlantic Ocean waves in Manthia Diawara’s film A Letter From Yene (2022). In an unexpected moment of introspection, Diawara’s voiceover reflects: “I am also participating in the land erosion. I came to buy a house in a place [where] people usually do not buy houses, but I come with my European mentality: I want to be by the ocean, I want to create a vacation place. And by doing this I also have lost respect for the land, because I just want the land for my use. I’m not giving anything back to the land or the ocean […] this is why this film needs to change not only the people I’m making the film on, but me too.”

Intimate ecologies is a praxis, a way of reading, a methodology for those haunted and heavy with the weight of ancestors, a point of departure from which to speculate. The concept arose out of my need to keep thinking with and working in resistance to climate colonialism, when the threat of despair, of overwhelming and crushing melancholia dragged me under. I needed to queer colonial presentations of human-to-more-than-human relations. I needed to keep thinking and speaking about pleasure, possibility, intimacy, and spirit, the speculative and the still-to-be-imagined futures in which Blackness and the more-than-human are becoming, utilizing what photographer and activist Rotimi Fani-Kayode, in his 1988 text for TEN.8, called “a technique of ecstasy.”

Concepts such as climate colonialism and intimate ecologies cultivate ethical frameworks for reckoning with violent colonial pasts and presents. They cradle spaces for a capacious, trans-temporal Blackness in intimate relation with a multitude of ecologies. We are all trying to heal. Refusing to figure Black subjectivity in isolation. Aestheticizing futures in which Black ecologies are no longer contested ground. Remaking rituals with which to live, love, kill, eat, decompose, and dream together.



Ama Josephine Budge is an artist, curator, speculative writer, and pleasure activist whose projects navigate the intimate interrelations between art, ecology, and Blackness. For this C& edition she discusses her take on ecological perspectives that have too long excluded Black experience, expertise, and ecstasy.



This article is from the latest C& and C&AL Print Issue “Ecologies”. Read the full magazine here.



C& Print

We Got Issues!


More Editorial

All content © 2024 Contemporary And. All Rights Reserved. Website by SHIFT