The Artistic Activism of Chihiro Geuzebroek


Chihiro Geuzebroek, a Bolivian-Dutch multidisciplinary artist and activist with Quechua ancestry, was born and raised in Amsterdam. As a prominent climate justice advocate, she specializes in decolonial perspectives and practices. Geuzebroek’s work spans film, public speaking, songwriting, and spoken word, all aimed at reshaping humanity’s relationship with the Earth.

After filming at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Summit, she traveled to Bolivia to shoot her climate-justice documentary Radical Friends. In 2016 she started to film activist performances for Fossil Free Culture; she also took part in the protests against the coal industry in Germany. Additionally, she co-founded the Climate Liberation Bloc – cementing her role in the fight for climate justice, and the decolonization foundation Aralez (2020). Chihiro has also served as a campaign manager for the political party BIJ1.

Our cultural editor Ilaha Absali had the opportunity to attend Chihiro’s lecture on artivism and politics at the University of Amsterdam earlier this year. Chihiro conveyed a sense of political and artistic urgency and straightforwardness. Inspired by her insights, Ilaha sat down with the artist to discuss the importance of engagement and presence versus abstention, using art as a tool, and reconnecting with Quechua Indigenous knowledge.

Ilaha: We live in a commodified world where our relationships with nature, the arts, and even ourselves are heavily commercialized. You work in the interdisciplinary field of political activism and artivism. Why do you find it essential to merge these two disciplines?

Chihiro: I always wanted to do music, film, and art, and installation came later, but I always thought it was a luxury, and I thought I had to do political activism. Then when my health worsened, I realized art was not just a luxury but a necessity to digest certain emotions and experiences. That is the personal aspect of that story. However, more on why art and activism belong together: activism tells political truths and takes courageous stands. Art speaks emotional truths that are often oppressed and gives courageous expressions in many ways, and it does not have to explain itself as much.

To me, they are kind of siblings. They are not the same. Activism can do certain things that art cannot do, and art can do certain things that activism cannot. However, they both come from the same drive to socialize and collectivize issues of life and death, love and rage, and offer some perspective. So they are both tools of communication to a bigger public. I noted that they are both an antidote to Margaret Thatcher’s lie that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Yeah. And what I personally really like is that when I make art I do not have to explain all the aspects as much. I can layer it with many dimensions, and people can read the shallow and deeper dimensions and pick up some dimensions that I never even intended. I think both activism and art are medicine.

Ilaha: How do you use art to address the experience of ‘living on this damaged planet’ as Anna Tsing refers to in her book? Is it a tool, or a substance itself that you want to create?

Chihiro: It was a tool when I filmed the uninvited performances of fossil-free culture at the Vincent Van Gogh Museum or the Concertgebouw, where these institutions were taking blood money from Shell made with fossil fuels. It was also a tool when I wrote the song Shell Must Fall, which situates the climate crisis and the Shell crisis as a colonial crisis of land and resource theft. It was something that I had addressed many times in activist spaces, but people were not listening.

Moreover, by writing a song, you can make it an earworm and more catchy, and it can travel across borders to different activist spaces without you being there. So then, it is a tool. But now I’m entering museum spaces, which is way more of a process because everywhere I enter that space, that neoliberal institution of the art market and everything is not made for me. And it is not made for Indigenous storytelling. So every agreement, step of the process, communication, and text is a negotiation, a confrontation with their historical privilege of telling or erasing our stories. It is yet another arena of struggle. Sometimes, it is beyond process or tool. It can be spiritual healing. For example, this song by Vivir Quintana, a Mexican feminist song about missing and murdered women, or Hinds Hall by Macklemore, or all work by hip-hop artist Lowkey I feel in my body.

And every time I hear that song, I have to cry, but those are tears of a release that is medicine, to speak these emotional and historical truths of Palestine, it is more than a tool. It is spiritual sanity within the infuriating web of lies. So sometimes, it is spiritual food for the movement that we also desperately need because it is not just a material fight; it is also one for our spiritual, embodied health that is on the line. Art can also work as peace fiction; imagining healing and wholeness like the work of Anishinaabe artist Quill Violet Christie Peters.

Ilaha: Art and politics are very much intertwined, and you mentioned your experience of dealing with art politics while bringing the Indigenous storytelling feature to the neoliberal art institutions. How do you navigate art politics here while keeping them aligned with your values and truths?

Chihiro: I have yet to figure it out because, for so many years, it was not an option to enter these institutions because they wanted nothing to do with me or other people representing the type of work we do. So it is a new challenge. I do agree with Angela Davis. She was here in 2018 and was criticized for speaking at the Tropical Museum, a colonial institute. And she said, ‘there is no pure platform’. The idea of purity is not going to help our movements to advance. So you will engage with players who do not understand you and have a problematic history. That is the history of practically all prominent universities and museums. They had a colonial function of building up the nation-state, national sense of self, and national sense of knowledge and pride. So right now, I just made, for the first time, an installation for the Amsterdam Museum. I am still navigating what I want to bring out regarding how horrible the whole process has been.

I believe that there were right intentions of wanting to change, be a game changer in telling Indigenous stories by Indigenous people, by Lenape people, by myself, situated here in the Netherlands, but the process has been one of failing to comply with any agreement that we made, including fulfilling their duties to write wall texts for my work before opening of the exhibition. My works were supposed to be open on the 15th of May. They had not done anything in nine months, and in the last week, they started. They were surprised that there were edits and more people who wanted to look at it before they could publish.

They also did not invite any Indigenous community into the process of hosting events with the Lenape delegation in the Netherlands, or to the opening, or fulfill organizing community events with Indigenous diaspora living in the Netherlands. All of these things had been promised in August 2023 as a key requirement for this collaboration. Because I confronted them with this failure to comply, they are now no longer showing my work. These are big consequences! But to me, it is essential the door opens to us as a collective not merely to me as an individual artist. Activism has a price. So every time that gaslighting requires you to be an activist, be an activist in the institution, which changes the game of your activism because you become an institutional activist, rather than, like on a national or international level, activist. So, it is our duty to advance the fight more and build that good practice.

The latest I heard is that they are now backtracking their agreement to organize community events with Indigenous organizations here in the Netherlands. The curator promised me, that another museum employee wrote an Indigenous organizer they would produce a community event with Indigenous Liberation Day. But now they say they won’t. So often, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer violence of privilege moving without checking in. Are we good here and hearing the response? No, we are not good.

Ilaha: What is the importance of engaging in the political spaces that are already co-opted like the UN Climate summits?

Chihiro: I understand it can be personally transformative to engage in protest there, but I urge people to not have their theory of change be focused on those spaces of corrupt powers. The needle has not significantly moved in 30 years. I went to the climate summit in Copenhagen(2009), then Paris (2015) and Bonn in 2017. I do not think we achieved anything politically here as grassroots activists, but all of these three participations have been personally life-changing; when I went to the COP in Copenhagen, it was the first time I was with 100.000 people on the street to have protest and resistance 10 days in a row, and I met so many inspiring people there. Moreover, whether or not to go, which is the big question with an institution, art, institution, or something else, has to do with where you want to build community because it is a long fight. Are you in it for the long haul? I engaged with the COP because climate justice is not an event but a life path. I learned something. I guess that is why I engaged with the Amsterdam Museum after two bad experiences already.

The artwork is significant to me because my work around Indigenous identity theft is both an accusation, and a protest, and the tent I made is also an embodiment of love. I think if you do not want to deal with messiness, you cannot be an activist or an artist because the whole journey consists of confrontation and cleaning shit up. We are political cleaners, and we are emotional cleaners. So I engage in ‘polluted’ spaces and institutions with the intention of bringing a little bit of better practice. But if an institute that defends Zionism invites me to speak on the need for Palestine, I have to be realistic about who is asking me and deny the invitation. It is simply not the space to build community – it is a place to block, divest, and create sanctions.

Moreover, if the COP asks you to sing a song, you should know that many people have sung a song as an Indigenous person there before, and there can be tears, but 5 minutes later the politicians of mass destruction just continue raping the earth. So, it is also important to reflect if you are invited as a token to mask injustice.

Ilaha: I like the metaphors of the cleaners. Most of your work has been more politically driven, but how you decide, like just coming back from this ideological discussion to more mundane discussions, is how do you decide what you want to do daily with your artwork?

Chihiro:  For my feature documentary Radical Friends I dedicated myself for four years with my own money, without any funding. I think I was positively triggered by attending the climate summit in Copenhagen. I was inspired by the stand of Bolivia that said we had to get a tribunal for the rights of the Earth to end capitalism, pay climate reparations, and have a worldwide referendum because climate breakdown affects us all. I was propelled to make a film that was more than political analysis but included an emotional journey of myself as a struggling activist and seeing this hot mess we’re in through the historical context of colonization and dispossession in Bolivia.

As director-producer and protagonist, the movie was a personal journey as a Bolivian-Dutch environmental activist. I had studied film and worked in Hilversum. After being broke and exhausted for many years it was accidental that I came into poetry, and I made three poetry shows. They were cheaper than film. The art piece I made, Quechua Demonstration; Maypi Kachkanchik is also deeply personal and political. It is a protest piece against the cultural appropriation of Indigenous peoples by corporate powers.

Quechua is a French outdoor brand that overtakes the meaning of what Quechua is. If you google Quechua you find pictures of tents and backpacks before you find Quechua philosophers, musicians, or historical figures. It’s like they do not exist. The art piece is also an act of love as I have embroidered faces and names of Quechua sources of inspiration. Spending weeks on the face of activist Domitila Barrios de Chungarra or Sandy Grande was a heart opener. In art, I can work with my emotional contradictions and make things flow that are stuck.

An embroidery art piece made for the Amsterdam Museum | 2024 Quechua Demonstration Maypi Kachkanchik.

Looking back in 2024 I see a red line between the Radical Friends film and Quechua demonstration. But in between there were many projects; music, expo, spoken word, and StagingWood at Oerol that I have landed in collaborations organically.  For me it has been significant when challenged by navigating activism and art is knowing my principles very well. Otherwise, opportunism will lead you astray. I have seen this with bigger green NGOs aiming for environmental noble goals through their opportunism; they end up having an office in Israel and not speaking out about Palestine or having an office in China and not speaking out about Tibet. It is what leads them to occupy an airport but not speak out about the military, which pollutes twice as much as the international aviation system. So, I think you should have your principles clear, and with those principles, look at what is accessible. If you first look at what is accessible and then check in with your principles, um, you are going to get a very watered-down version of whatever it is that you have to bring to the table.

Ilaha: There is a big difference between political activism, which is usually more urgent and art which is very layered, and we can interpret it differently through time. When you create art, does it also convey this urgency, or do you still believe that art should not serve this function?

Chihiro: There should be space for all sorts of art, some of it being very spacious and open-ended and some of it being punchy. I am not too fond of it when people say, ‘Oh no, this is not art; you cannot make a statement or stop being so political’. Everything is political.

To change policy however you need political activism but art is good for changing hearts. And that is something you know green NGOs always want to do. That is the soft system change. For example on my Instagram; all my messages are on Palestine, whether it is student activism, or if it is exposing yet another war crime committed, or yet another incitement to genocide by a minister of Israel. I tell my mother about many things, we talk about it on a very, um, yeah, information level. This happened. So many people were killed. So much money goes to the military. And then the other day, I read her the poem, If I Must Die, by Refaat Alareer, and I just started crying, and I realized I had not cried in a long time watching all of this horror on social media. And then reading the poem, and sharing my tears, I think I reached her differently.

Here art does the work of a soft system change of opening hearts and melting into another allegiance, another understanding that is not more important or less important than the material struggle. Both need to happen in tandem. And so much of our world is suffering from compartmentalization and understanding things in categories, parts, and measurements, that even in our struggles we sometimes do not understand that different dimensions and levels of change-work need to flow together. And it all has a part to play. As a political activist, I do, I do suffer from it myself that I sometimes think, what am I doing embroidering a tent with Quechua women on it when people are dying like that is a fundamental question that you have to keep asking yourself, but I do think this slow and poetic work is also needed to digest and strengthen (y)our stand with an open and a determined heart.

Ilaha: There is this subtle or implicit desire for change and hope for change. As an artist and political activist, how do you navigate this on a personal level or on a political level, where you find hope?

Chihiro: I often get the Hope question. I have to start saying the hope is for liberals. If I had to depend on hope to act, I would get stuck. Sometimes, I feel depressed, angry, proud or  I feel on top of the world. Our emotions always fluctuate. Liberals view the world as made up of ideas, so once we have hope the work is done. But I believe we live in a spiritual and material world, we need to maintain a strong political analysis; and theory of change. So, we can still be aligned with our values, solidarity, and union. So, I believe in building unity, not hope. Unity can deal with bad days and despair, but hope can not deal with police brutality. But in unity, we can deal with it. Once you have unity and solidarity you can deal with miserable times too.

Ilaha Abasli

Ilaha is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam). She holds a Master's degree in International Development and Emerging Economies from King's College London. She writes on climate change, material circularity, and its social aspects in the context of the Global South.

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