Ghana ThinkTank exhibition reverses power dynamic

Last Thursday, students, faculty and staff found their way into the Ghana ThinkTank exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). An ornate, metallic column grew up from the floor and expanded upwards, greeting the attendees as they embarked on this experience. It was part of a Morrocan riad, in which multiple house doors open into a communal courtyard. As soon as I stepped into the room, I was offered a chunk of raw turnip. While munching, I learned that we may soon lose the Florida Mountain turnip from the effects of climate change. Next, Gabriel Wexler ’19 offered me a very different plate. “Roasted crickets,” he said, grinning. “Just don’t look at it too much before you eat one.” I shut my eyes before tasting what may be the “meal of the future.” To my surprise, the cricket wasn’t bad at all; the salt certainly helped.

What do a Moroccan riad and roasted crickets have in common? They are both solutions to our problems. The Ghana ThinkTank, designed by three artists, aims to tackle a range of problems in the U.S. The theme of the WCMA ThinkTank is climate change, in keeping with the College’s “Confronting Climate Change” initiative. Instead of large-scale problems such as rising sea levels, the project examines the effects of a changing climate in the everyday lives of Berkshire community members.

“What’s different about our approach is that we weren’t looking entirely for problems that had global and seemingly unstoppable effects; we were more interested in finding out how climate change affects people in the smallest and most tangible of ways,” CJ Salapare ’20, a member of the Action Team for the Ghana ThinkTank, said.

The novelty of the project, however, lies in how it approaches the process of solution-making. The ThinkTank seeks to challenge cultural assumptions by flipping traditional power dynamics. Instead of the U.S. model of solving the problems of “developing” countries, the ThinkTank asks those countries to help the U.S. instead. It collects problems from people in the U.S. and sends them to think tanks in countries such as Ghana, El Salvador and Iran. In the case of the WCMA ThinkTank, Morocco and Indonesia provided the solutions.

This was a multistep process. First, solutions were collected from community members; they responded to the question “how does climate change affect you?” The Action Team sorted through hundreds of these, and they picked a handful. “[They] ultimately chose eight to 10 problems that they thought stuck out and represented the community,” Rachel Heisler, WCMA’s manager of student and visitor engagement, said. The problems were sent to “ThinkTanks” in Morocco and Indonesia where solutions were brainstormed and sent back to America. Next, students in the Winter Study course “Public Art and Climate Change” proceeded to build the exhibition itself. The final step of the project, which has yet to come to fruition, will be the actual implementation of these solutions. The team is in the midst of this right now, and soon members of the Moroccan and Indonesian ThinkTanks will visit to help out.

Around the walls, visitors could view the problems and corresponding solutions posted up. The solutions ranged from practical to touching to humorous.“As the weather gets more unpredictable, I find it harder to find people willing to sit next to me outside. I hate sitting outside by myself,” a 90-year-old woman wrote. Two examples of solutions from Morocco include, “get the 90-year-old on Tinder” and “she can move to Morocco … we take care of our elders here.” Another problem touched on politics. “In Florida, you aren’t allowed to use ‘climate change’ in any official document.” The Moroccan solution? “Rebrand climate change; find acceptable synonyms.” A simple, almost obvious solution, but one that is easier said than done.

How much will the Ghana ThinkTank accomplish in the pursuit of its goals? Some have doubts. “The actions they’re having us do – they’re not going to have any effect,” Wexler said. Wexler took “Public Art and Climate Change,” and it was not what he expected. However, Wexler’s issues with the ThinkTank ran deeper than with the course itself. He argued that while the project attempted to reverse power dynamics, it merely perpetuated these very issues. Instead of feeling empowering,“it felt a lot more like outsourcing,” Wexler said.“Climate change is inherently a global issue,” he said, “[and] our problems with climate change are completely dwarfed by [developing countries’] problems with climate change.”

Furthermore, the project emphasizes that climate change is a universal problem; it’s going to affect everyone no matter which country. This axiom, though, has its limits. “All we can observe is the day-to-day,” Salapare said, expressing how Americans struggle to understand climate change on a personal level. Conceding how this leaves some attendees confused, Salapare did note how “people are just happy that this is another endeavor to bring awareness to climate change.”

The Ghana ThinkTank is an ambitious project with lofty goals. By placing itself at the intersection of art and activism, it raises important questions about the difficult nature of climate change and the relationship between the U.S. and developing countries. So long as the initiative continues implementing solutions, the endeavor continues.

At the intersection of art and activism, the Ghana ThinkTank raises important questions about the nature of climate change. Photo courtesy of Janeth Rodriguez, Photo Editor.