China is one of the world's superpowers but like every nation, it has its own challenges. This amazing artist and activist is bringing attention to one of China's biggest problems: environmental pollution and the social issues that arise from it. And while challenging leadership in China is risky—if not almost impossible—due to the strict censorship and media control, Nut Brother manages to bring his voice to the surface. To do that, he uses performance art.

Nut Brother in the Chinese countryside. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.

“Nut Brother” is a name the artist used on social media when just starting out—sharing his real name would be too risky. He became famous in 2015, showing up on the streets of Beijing with an industrial vacuum cleaner and pointing the hoover towards the grey skies.

Nut Brother collecting air in Beijing. Image courtesy of New York Times.

He continued walking around Beijing with the same vacuum cleaner for 100 days and was able to make a brick from the dust he collected.

Nut Brother holding a brick made from smog. Image courtesy of Daily Mail Online.

Air pollution has been a problem in China for a while. However, there are other issues that are harder to see.

“The artist’s job is to confront the times,” says Nut Brother, drawing the public’s attention to other environmental issues.

Contamination of water and soil is less visible and, therefore, overlooked. This lack of attention is especially true for remote areas where environmentally harmful practices are still thriving, contaminating the soil and water.

In 2018, Nut Brother visited a remote Xiaohaotu village in Shaanxi province, where coal and gas mining have been harming the environment and lives of the locals. The villagers drank contaminated water for decades and some of them developed serious conditions such as stomach cancer. The livestock was suffering, too: eating grass that was growing on mines’ wastewater resulted in many animal deaths around the village.

Despite the disapproval of the local government, Nut Brother filled 10,000 bottles with contaminated water from the village and displayed them in the city. To show the stark difference in water quality, he used the bottles of a popular Chinese spring water brand.

A passerby in Beijing drinking polluted water from the village by Greg Baker/AFP. Image courtesy of Hong Kong Free Press.

The water brand complained about the exhibition and it was shut down; however, it had already reached the public and got media attention. Authorities began to investigate the village’s water quality and made a decision to give water purifiers to the locals. But the mining industry remained in its place.

"Small places have no power to speak out. In the mainstream, their voice is so small it's imperceptible,” Nut Brother said about the issue. Besides, wealthy corporations, often sponsored by the government, are not paying attention to the environmental impact. The artist’s efforts to demonstrate water quality connect with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Clear Water and Sanitation.

Another art project brought focus to the education of migrant children living in Baishizhou, a district of the Shenzhen city. People living in the area were facing eviction due to the new redevelopment plan. Forced relocation would mean difficult school commutes or a tough search for new schools for the children.

Nut Brother placed some of the children’s toys around the open area where an excavator would pick them up and throw them into the curb. This project clearly illustrated what the redevelopment plan would mean for the people.

Nut Brother’s performance art installation in Shenzhen by Qiu Rong. Image courtesy of Sixth Tone.

Although the law enforcement shut the project down, his brave performance art slowed down the governmental plans and brought public awareness to the situation. The installation reflects the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Quality Education.

Finally, this July, Nut Brother made a significant impact with a song about air pollution. The performance happened on Qinghai Plateau, a popular place for burning garbage. The artist and a small band were dressed in gas masks and hazmat suits singing, “A person’s life is but a single breath, a breath laced with garbage.” Strong lyrics and a series of nationwide concerts are getting quite a lot of traction, drawing attention to air, soil and water pollution.

Nut Brother playing a song about air pollution from burning trash. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.

Overall, Nut Brother is an amazing example of an artist using his creative vision to send a powerful message to the world. He continues to create despite the strong censorship and occasional threats.

"Our projects are not really radical," he says about himself and his small team. "We don't get things moving through confrontation, but rather we move things forward through imagination."

Check out his powerful art and get inspired by following his Instagram.

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