Latai Taumoepeau is an Australian artist with Tongan heritage, who has been making work on how climate change is affecting the Pacific Islands for the last decade. She began shifting her artistic focus towards this topic in 2007, when she attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali with delegates from the Pacific Islands. It was then that she saw a lack of voice for the low-lying Pacific Islands within the conversation around climate change activism. Seeing that the area at the most risk of rising seas lacked a voice, Taumoepeau wanted to provide one for Oceania.

She stepped into her role as a self-described “Punake,” a Tongan revered for performance-based arts. Through her work, she continues the traditions of her ancestors to tell stories, explore new ideas for the present-day, and offer empathy to her people. She combines Indigenous methodologies with contemporary practices in order to re-interpret the landscape and culture of the Pacific Islands in light of climate change. Taumoepeau has been gathering scientific and financial information on the climate crisis and its impacts on the Pacific Island region in service of accurately depicting the reality of the climate crisis on her community. Her work is layered and multi-faceted, incorporating dance, video, and sounds to long endurance performance work.

i-Land X-isle, 2012

In this performance piece, Taumoepeau explores the impact of climate change on vulnerable indigenous communities from the low-lying islands of Oceania. The artist tied herself with rope to a 2-ton block of ice to demonstrate the struggles people of Oceania endure due to a climate crisis created by nearby developing countries. Each melting drop that falls on Taumoepeau signifies the slow drowning of the islands. The audience is made to feel confronted by their own responsibility in the matter.

The artist explains the immediacy and importance of the work as such: “Void of frangipani, there will be no songs and dances by smiling natives, piña coladas or deck chairs; only expectation for the International community to take responsibility for the demise of vulnerable others by ACTING NOW!”

i-Land X-isle, 2012. Photo courtesy of ABC.net

Repatriate I, 2015

Taumoepeau worked with filmmaker Elias Nohra to create a video and performance piece that examines the forced dispossession and displacement brought on by climate change. The artist gesticulates the dances of the Indigenous people of Oceania from within a tank. The tank slowly fills with water as she performs, until the artist is unable to dance any longer and she seemingly drowns. The performance asks the audience to ponder what happens when an environment can no longer support its people: an entire culture will be submerged by the seas.

Repatriate I, 2015

Disaffected, 2016

This piece is a combination of movement, dance, sound and interviews from people of the Philippines, the Cook Islands, and Kiribati. The voices represent the people and places that are at the most risk due to the climate crisis. A makeshift disaster shelter immerses the audience in the firsthand experience of a climate crisis and the aftermath of its effects. Using audio and visual design, props, movement, and dialogue, the piece creates a visceral experience for the audience to empathize with the people who have and will endure this crisis.

Disaffected, 2016. Photo courtesy of Katy Green Loughrey
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