Tuvalu: “Why are we watching these people?”

Tuvalu by Angela Tiatia at the Australian Museum. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Jenny Newell.

Tuvalu by Angela Tiatia at the Australian Museum. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Jenny Newell.

by Richard J. Thompson.


Keywords: Tuvalu, Australian Museum, Climate Change, Oceania Rising, Angela Tiatia.




In the Atrium of the Australian Museum you can see, across three screens, the twenty minute Angela Tiatia film, Tuvalu, playing on a loop. Some museum visitors may walk past it, perhaps preoccupied with their desire to get to the Wild Planet exhibit. Ironically, one might say this casual ignorance is symbolic of our casual ignorance as a collective society towards climate change in the Pacific and the drastic consequences it is having now, and is predicted to have even more so in the future. We continue to produce waste and live unsustainably, unaware that we are contributing to a global climate crisis that is having severe effects on our neighbours in the Pacific. Low lying islands, such as Tuvalu, face being overcome by the rising sea levels resulting from increased temperatures primarily caused by anthropogenic emissions. Collectively, we cannot afford to be ignorant of these consequences any longer, Tuvalu wakes its audience up to this fact.


In Tiatia’s film we observe some of the daily effects of rising sea levels around the main atoll of Tuvalu, Funafuti. There is no dialogue, nor characters in the traditional sense. We are invited to focus on the images and sounds we see before our eyes that project the experiences of living with the effects of climate change, as we “bear witness” to people who value their home slowly lose it. The film provides us with an insight into our “collective future”, whereby Tuvalu and islands with a similar geography are seemingly the first victims in a crisis they have contributed the least to producing.


One particular scene in this film stands out to me above all others in its profundity. A close up shot of what appears to be a road or path appears across all three displays, however, from the edges of each screen water begins to creep in and cover the surface. After slowly encroaching, the water finally surrounds the last tiny bit of surface, before it is then too covered with water. The screen then briefly goes black. A visual metaphor of the grave predictions that Tuvalu and like islands face due to climate change and its associated effects. The profound silence of this scene is deafening to me.


Tuvalu is one of three beautiful and powerful video works recently acquired by the Australian Museum and made by the Samoan-Sydney multimedia artist Angela Tiatia. Tiatia’s works make up the centrepiece of Oceania Rising: Climate Change in Our Region, a novel program dealing with the aforementioned issues of climate change in the Pacific. Tuvalu, along with Holding On, and Salt Stone, will be shown at the three venues participating in Oceania Rising, the Australian Museum, Blacktown Arts, and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.


As I sat in the Atrium watching Tuvalu, a group of young school children visiting the museum gathered boisterously in front of me on the floor, watching the film and waiting with their teacher while other students joined them. One student came bounding in from my right and loudly pronounced to his teacher, “why are we watching these people?”


“Why are we watching these people?” is a question we should all ask ourselves when watching the film. What do the challenges of daily life faced by the people living on Tuvalu tell us about our collective shortcomings and the impeding crises many of us are ignorantly walking into? Answering the pervasive question, “Why?”, especially when asked by children, the future leaders that will have to confront climate change, is the first step to overcoming these challenges and standing in solidarity with those living with the immediate effects of climate change.




Angela Tiatia is a multimedia artist who lives in Sydney and is of Samoan-Australian heritage.


Oceania Rising: Climate Change in Our Region is an exciting 6-month program of art installations, discussions, workshops, and meetings with museum collections – designed to work through big questions around climate change. The program is a partnership between the Australian Museum, Blacktown Arts, and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, working in collaboration with the community.


Richard J. Thompson is an intern with the Engagement, Exhibitions & Cultural Connection division of the Australian Museum, working under Dr. Jenny Newell, Manager of the Pacific and International Collections, specifically in relation to the development of the Oceania Rising program and related climate change focused projects.



Jenny Newell