The ‘Volcano babies’ community project

Montserrat is a small British Overseas Territory with an emerald and grey landscape sculpted by natural hazards, and with a society partly molded by colonization and slavery, and by the response to the environmental crises from both local and (post-)colonial powers.

In 1995, when the Soufrière Hills volcano eruption started after centuries of quiescence, none would have ever suspected the dramatic shift in Montserrat’s story line that was about to occur. As Soufrière Hills volcano slowly buried the inhabited South under tons of hot rocks and ashes killing at least 19 people, destroying most of Montserrat sources of income and increasing its dependence to the UK, two-thirds of the population was forced to exile, and the North of the island began a long struggle towards recovery. But how can a country re-build itself without first reconnecting to its foundations?

On Montserrat, the ‘Curating Crises’ project has partnered with the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) in sharing the research data and findings with the local population and with the decision-makers in hopes of increasing volcanic risk awareness. The MVO, through sponsorships and partnerships with a wide section of Government organizations, private businesses and individuals on island, has developed the concept of a multi-faceted community project that could achieve these objectives, while more widely benefitting Montserrat’s youth and more generally the community in the long-term.

At the core of the community project is the establishment in January 2023 of the MVO- Montserrat Secondary School (MSS) Club, during which a group of Montserrat students, from the locally called “Volcano babies” generation, embarked on a journey to reconnect with the history of Montserrat and learn about the past and ongoing impacts of the 1995 volcanic crisis through a wide range of indoors and field-work activities, and by using archives and learnings from the ‘Curating Crises’ project.

For the students to share their vision of the island and of the island history with the local and international community, including the vast Montserratian diaspora, the MVO-MSS club culminated in May 2023 by the creation of the first community mural on the island at the Montserrat Secondary School, as well as three others community murals painted across the island. The club, creative process and execution of the murals have been documented by the students and local video-makers in a short-movie co-filmed and realized by local film-maker Jerely Browne, that will be submitted to international festivals (expected release: September 2023). To give basics in mural painting and film-making to the students but also to build capacity in Montserrat, several workshops in Arts and Film-making, facilitated by The Goodness Tour professional artists, were organized for the students and open to interested artists and/or members of the community.

The content and imageries of the murals were brought by the MVO-MSS club students, by local artists and/or members of the community, who also significantly participated to the painting of the murals. The MSS mural features two students, a boy and a girl, depicted in graduation wear and, who as they reach for the stars, are inspired by remembering the challenges overcome by their elders (particularly, as represented, during periods of volcanic unrest or crisis eg in the 1930’s and 1990’s), and also finding strength in Montserrat rich biodiversity. The other murals include colorful representations of the volcanic origin of Montserrat, the volcanic processes (eg pyroclastic flows), communities built to relocate people displaced during the 1995 volcanic crises, a legend associated with the Soufrière Hills volcano, etc

Beyond the creation of unique and inspiring community artworks in Montserrat and local capacity building, the mural paintings and short-documentary express the struggles experienced by many Caribbean islands, and depict how by gaining an ownership of their history, and by sharing local and scientific knowledge through the Arts, the Youth and other community members can be empowered and share their hopes for a brighter future.

The ‘Volcano babies’ community project