Painting the Pain of Palm Oil - The Splash And Burn Art Campaign
It all started with a forest fire in 2015 that blanketed thousands of acres of land and created what is now called the South East Asian Haze. Smoke from the fire wafted all the way to Penang, Malaysia where Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was located at the time. When Zacharevic learned about the destructive nature of the palm oil industry in Indonesia which was responsible for the haze, he decided to play his part in raising awareness around the illegal agricultural fires and started a new project called ‘Splash and Burn’. The projects name is an apt wordplay of the environmental issue of large-scale slash and burn and is also suggestive of the artist's approach to address it through creativity and art. ‘Splash and Burn’ was no walk in the park and required Zacharevic to hunt down his team of eight international artists to help him redecorate the jungle. Since then, for the last two years, him and his coordinator Charlotte Pyatt have been busy with exhausting field work (research, collecting data and talking to specialists) and consequent artwork to change the fate of Sumatra. Sumatra is an island that stretches far and wide upon the Indian Ocean and is the sixth largest island in the world. From wildlife consisting of orangutans to Sumatran tigers, and scenic landscapes of active volcanoes surrounded by calm and cool beaches, it is a true abode of diversity in all forms. Zacharevic initiated his work in collaboration with the Sumatran Orangutan Society and funded it by the commercial release of limited edition prints of the artwork along with donations made by international artists.
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil derived from palm fruits and is used in more than fifty percent of products sold in supermarkets. Since 1964, many parts of Indonesia have been the home of palm oil plantations. In fact, the palm oil industry is the pedestal on which the Indonesian economy now stands. Indonesia is the largest exporter of palm oil and produces 86 percent of the total production worldwide. As the years have passed, more and more trees are being cut down to clear land for plantations that are proving to have a debilitating effect on the Sumatran ecosystem. As of 2014, palm-oil plantations stand on 7.9 million hectares of Indonesian soil. The felling of trees has also endangered many indigenous species of animals like the Sumatran Tiger, rhinoceroses, elephants and orangutans. These animals are chased out of their natural habitats and displaced as a result of all the deforestation-taking place. As the canopy above their heads slowly disappears, so do they.
As a sea of flames engulfs the dense plantations of Sumatra, a flood of paint bathes its walls with inspiration and silent rebellion. Zacharevic’s vision is to raise awareness and start a discussion about environmental degradation by painting thought-provoking images across the murky walls of Sumatra. Art has no language. It can be comprehended by anyone who connects with it, whether it is an Indonesian farmer or the owner of a large MNC (multinational corporation). Art also has no boundaries. It cannot be contained on paper or lost beneath the binds of a book. By wielding his brush across wide walls, the artists are bringing the community closer to start conversations about a topic that has carelessly been swept under the rug for a very long time.
The campaign strikes a chord with both environmentalists and artists. Striving to redefine, refocus and re-imagine street art, the artists have used simple depictions that hook onto complex and inexplicable emotions of the human mind. One key feature of the campaign is that of attacking human perception and ignorance through provocative imagery. Artist Mark Jenkins explains that when people are scrambling to get through the day, grabbing their attention can be a challenging task. What better way to attract one’s attention than to have a pair of inverted human legs sticking out of the ground? After all, the thought of death beckons one’s curiosity to go forward.
While themes of death, darkness, and destruction occupy one front of the campaign, on the other end, walls are teeming with children who lunge on to escaping bears and swing under rusty rickshaws. The artists have tried to capture some of the raw moments of what it must mean to grow up in an exploitative land. One of the most notable artworks of the campaign is that of a child who rides a rhinoceros made of crumpled dollar bills holding a torch in his hand. This piece, in particular, is the most famous since it was its sale that funded the entire campaign.
Non-violence and peaceful demonstration is the basis of ‘Splash and Burn’ that in many ways is similar to the zombie march protest that took place in Hamburg earlier on this year. It seems that demonstrations everywhere are using various forms of art to translate their thoughts into something more eye-catching, fun and refreshing. The recent G20 summit which was held in Hamburg, Germany saw a theatrical display of ‘the walking dead’ as thousands of people impersonating zombies trod down the street, clad and covered in gray with deadpan expressions on their face. Then, one actor stripped down to reveal his colorful clothes beneath and that soon instigated the other 999 participants to do the same. This symbolized their message that change can begin with one person. The ‘zombies’ were protesting against the destructive impact of capitalism and believed in the power of benevolence.
Another heroic intervention into Sumatra to help address the crisis in the jungle was the arrival of American actor, film producer and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio. His journey to Sumatra started in 1998 with the establishment of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which was created to support local partners to establish a ‘mega-fauna sanctuary’ in areas that are endangered by the palm-oil industry. The organization has also taken steps towards protecting the migratory corridors used by wild Sumatran elephants that are now an endangered species. DiCaprio has also used his social media presence to garner support to save the Leuser Ecosystem.
Through their innovative and unselfish efforts in Sumatra, artists like Ernest Zacharevic and activists like Leonardo DiCaprio have shown that we can all make a difference and that it is our duty to do whatever we can to protect the environment. Zacharevic’s invention and implementation of ‘Splash and Burn’ with artistic wit and the powerful will to try right the wrongs that are being done in the Sumatran community proves to be a great example of this. Art is slowly laying down a road for positive change despite the policies and power play that topple down from the top of the hierarchy. As for Sumatra, the struggle against the vices of the palm oil industry continues, stronger and more colorful than ever.
What impact has the splash and burn campaign had since you started it?
The issues surrounding palm oil production have re-entered popular discussion via an alternative platform; Art. The issue has been reported via global media outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, two TED talks have been conducted in Europe and in Asia, podcasts and social media have all ramped up to diversify the social engagement in combating the unsustainable practices in the palm oil industry. We continue to support small, local organizations and communities pioneering conservation activity in Sumatra. Splash and Burn continues to promote creative solutions to fight the issue globally. We hope that it encourages and empowers artists to direct their creative practices towards positive action
How can those interested in supporting the conservation of Sumatra do so in a practical way?
Reflect on their everyday consumption of palm oil and wood pulp products, research policies towards palm oil in their own countries. Use their network, skills and social position to pressure those in power to act towards positive, sustainable policies and regulations in the palm oil supply chain. People are able to donate directly to the Splash and Burn campaign via the UK based charity SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society). This ensures we can continue the creative activity in the area. Interested parties can also donate, volunteer, promote or in any way support conservation communities and NGOs in Indonesia such as the OIC and Wahli, among many others to generate exposure of the great work they do there.
Are there any other more social issues or injustices that you plan on addressing through your creative activism?
While Splash and Burn is my own initiative it is not the first instance of my work making a social stand or commentary. I don’t see activism as the point of my work, but throughout my travels and research it has become a natural part of my practice. At the moment I have and continue to spend time in South East Asia and cannot help but be immersed in the stories and lives of the people and issues in the region. Its hard to predict future directions I remain open to inspiration.
What is the biggest inspiration and influence on your art and outlook on life?
My inspiration comes from observation. My immediate surroundings; interests, conversations and research all feature in my work. Our experiences are what shapes our personalities as well as how we express ourselves creatively.
What is the most important message or statement that you try to communicate in your work and want to be remembered for?
I don’t intend for my work to offer a statement or resolution of any kind. It is a way to communicate my perceptions of the world to a wider audience. They are more captured moments than ongoing narratives.