101 EAST: China’s Activist Artist

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101 EAST: China’s Activist Artist

Governments have a lot to worry about, but when the health of their people ends up low on their list of priorities, it’s up to the citizens to stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, between local authorities illegally detaining petitioners and reports of disappearances and ill-treatment of dissidents, speaking up in China is a risky business.

Most people don’t bother, but “Brother Nut” (坚果兄弟) isn’t most people. Working under his pseudonym, to protect himself and his family, he fights for what he believes in the best way he knows how: using art.

He first gained international attention with “Project Dust”: Using an industrial vacuum, he walked the streets of Beijing collecting smog. He then compressed these airborne particles into a solid brick. His timing was in line with the Chinese government’s attempts to rebrand themselves into an environmentally-aware nation.

For years, the locals of the poor township Xianhaotu have complained that the water from the river was making them sick. Their complaints fell on deaf ears even as people developed cancers and skin conditions. Brother Nut wanted to expose the issue. He filled 9,000 Nongfu Spring water bottles (a ubiquitous water-bottle company in China) with the murky river-water, displaying it at an art exhibition for all to see. After a complaint lodged by the Nongfu Spring company, all 9,000 bottles got confiscated by the government. Despite the setback, the Chinese authorities announced that they would launch an investigation on the contaminated river.

Though Brother Nut’s efforts are appreciated by many, the Chinese government, like all governments, don’t appreciate citizens airing their dirty laundry. Due to the success of his work, Brother Nut is under constant pressure from not only the authorities but also from his family to stop creating activist art. Between a rock and a hard place, he has to decide whether his art is worth the sacrifice. We follow him through this trying journey.

Friday, 11 December at 12:30 AM on Aljazeera (ch 257)