Activists in Azerbaijan use art to fight pollution

Gular Mehdizade, Sultana Ahmadbayli ,

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.

A work of art by Nazrin Musayeva, who collects discarded plastic bags from trees and the streets and uses them to create art.

It took Nazrin Musayeva eight months to complete her image of an octopus, which was made from discarded plastic bags. In particular, it was difficult to find different colors of plastic.

“There was a report on TV about how people ripped open seals’ mouths to remove the plastic waste that they had swallowed in order to save their lives. Can you imagine how they suffered? At least people should look at it and be careful,” Musayeva says.

This is Musayeva’s largest work made from plastic waste. She wanted to attract people’s attention to marine animals, since they face the biggest threat from plastic and cannot escape the pollution in the sea.

Musayeva believes that plastic is the most dangerous waste for the environment. “It does not decompose, does not mix with the soil, and it damages living things,” she says.

Musayeva would like to display her work on the streets of Baku because she believes it would influence people’s views on pollution and the environment. “But the police do not allow the public exhibition of artwork,” she says, adding that artists in neighboring Georgia have more freedom.

“Is this what you are doing? Don’t you have anything serious to do?” Musayeva often hears these kinds of comments when people see she is collecting waste and using it to create art.

A wall in Nazrin Musayeva’s workshop.

“Let's throw trash in the bin” - Farhad Aliyev rides his bicycle with this message attached to his bag everyday.

The history of cycling in Azerbaijan goes back to 1930, when bicycles were introduced to the country. But there are no bicycle paths in Azerbaijan today, with the exception of one in the New Boulevard area in capital Baku. But even that bicycle path lacks signs and markers.

There are very few places where garbage is sorted in Azerbaijan. Usually all types of waste are thrown into the same container.

“Many think that if there are street cleaners, it is okay to throw trash on the ground,” says Farhad Aliyev.

There are more trash cans in the central areas of capital Baku today, compared to a few years ago.

The volume of waste has increased, in part because plastic bags are given out at stores free of charge.

“Who throws trash here is heartless” - another way of saying “Don’t pollute this area”. In neighborhoods in Baku, one can see many different, creative statements from local residents who are fed up with litter.

"Do not litter"

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