Activists in Azerbaijan use art to fight pollution
Where most people see trash, 29-year old artist Nazrin Musayeva sees opportunity.
As pollution levels rise, Azerbaijanis, especially the younger generation, are increasingly interested in showing that environmental issues are important.
The growing volume of plastic waste has been particularly troubling. An estimated 24 kilogrammes of plastic waste is generated by every person in the country every year, according to official statistics. In fact, President Ilham Aliyev signed an order in February for a two-year plan to reduce the impact of plastic packaging waste in Azerbaijan.
The danger of plastic, especially plastic bags, is nothing new to artist Musayeva.
“In the news, we see what polyethylene bags do, especially for animals living in the water. These images are a tragedy for me and I cannot get them out of my mind. Animals cannot save themselves; they have no freedom of choice. If the sea is dirty, we do not go in, we choose the pool. But animals cannot do that. We pollute their homes and darken their lives,” she says.
Musayeva, who lives in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, has collected plastic waste for over a decade. But she goes further than most activists. A graduate of the Azerbaijan Art Academy, she uses the waste she collects to create artwork to challenge society's passivity about pollution.
As the marine animals face the biggest threat from plastic, Musayeva’s biggest work is an octopus recreated from plastic waste. It took eight month to create -- four months to collect the waste, and four months to create the painting.
Musayeva has also created artwork out of cigarette butts. This abstract work, made with tossed cigarettes she collected, is now at the Qala Museum in Baku. She hopes that these works will attract people's attention.
“Animals also live on the planet, together with humans. We have to think about each other and live together. At the very least, we should not throw garbage on the ground.”
While some people praise her for her work, others question why she is trying to create something out of trash. She often hears comments like "Is this what you are doing? Don’t you have anything serious to do? You collect garbage from the street. Get, work on the computer, you have great work [as designer]."
“At least I'm doing something. Those who do nothing, and especially those who pollute nature, should be ashamed…If everyone contributes a little to protect nature, the world could be a happy place to live in,” Musayeva says.
Nuray Ismayilova, a member of the board of the Friends of Nature Youth Organisation, notes that there are activists working on nature preservation both at the state level and in NGOs. But she warned there are not many of them – and they are not very effective yet, in part because they focus on "tree planting and cleaning up litter".
“Of course, these things need to be done. But new ways to raise awareness are needed. Otherwise, there is perception that loving and preserving of nature boils down to creating green space and keeping it clean," Ismayilova says.
A bigger issue is that most of the population is too busy worrying about their day-to-day existence to spare much thought for the environment, she adds.
“A person who has difficulties meeting their basic needs is only thinking about daily concerns. It is impossible to expect them to think about issues like global warming and the cutting of forests. But people should at least be educated about the consequences of littering on the streets, in the forests and in the water basins, at least to follow the simplest rule for a clean environment."
Farhad Aliyev, 42, agrees.
Aliyev learned to love nature from his father, who planted a tree the day he was born. The tree grew in the centre of their village, near Nagorno-Karabakh, and eventually became a meeting place for the family's neighbours.
Aliyev tries to raise awareness about pollution through his own lifestyle. An English teacher, he refers to himself as the “Green Person” and rides a bicycle to work and to travel short distances.
His backpack bears a sign with the slogan "Let's throw trash in the bin" to spread the word as he rides. The bike rides are not always scenic – Aliyev says he has seen plenty of trash on the road as he travels, especially plastic bags.
“I remember people used to use cloth bags for shopping at the market when I was a child. I’d like that to be the case today; to wash the bags and reuse again. It would be a big contribution to nature," he notes.
Reactions to his everyday activism differ. Some stop him to say thank you, some take pictures, and others complain that there are not enough bins for their garbage.
“People sometimes think that there should be bins around us everywhere and if there is not, they can throw garbage on the ground wherever they are. If you do not have a bin in your house, will you throw trash on the floor, or think of another alternative? You also have to think about that on the street. If not, put the trash in a bag and throw it away when you find a bin, or keep it in your car," Aliyev says.
He adds that he hopes that people will see him and his sign and stop littering.
“I wear this slogan on my back hoping that perhaps some people will feel ashamed and might stop throwing their garbage on the street. It would be great if it hits the brain of two out of every 100 people. Doing something useful makes me happy," Aliyev says.