A Disquieting Look at Life Around the Caspian Sea

Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews Captures the Geography of the Land and the Practices That Connect People to It

Albina Visilova, a regular visitor to the Naftalan Sanatorium. Naftalan, Azerbaijan, 2010; from Chloe Dewe Mathews: Caspian: The Elements (Aperture / Peabody Museum Press, 2018). Courtesy the artist, Aperture, and Peabody Museum Press.

The “Door to Hell.” In 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling in the Turkmen desert when the land gave way beneath them, leaving a seventy-meter-wide, noxious gas-emitting crater. They ignited the gas to try to burn off the excess, but the crater has been ablaze ever since. Darvaza, Turkmenistan, 2012; from Chloe Dewe Mathews: Caspian: The Elements (Aperture / Peabody Museum Press, 2018). Courtesy the artist, Aperture, and Peabody Museum Press.

The Flame Towers, completed in 2013, are the tallest buildings in Baku, Azerbaijan. Their surface is covered with LED screens that, when illuminated, give the impression of flickering flames. Baku, Azerbaijan, 2015; from Chloe Dewe Mathews: Caspian: The Elements, (Aperture / Peabody Museum Press, 2018). Courtesy the artist, Aperture, and Peabody Museum Press.

Two sisters run down to the remote underground mosque at Beket-Ata. They traveled six hours from Aktau, Kazakhstan, accompanying their family on a pilgrimage to pray for their uncle’s recovery. Mangystau Region, Kazakhstan, 2010; from Chloe Dewe Mathews: Caspian: The Elements (Aperture and Peabody Museum Press, 2018). Courtesy the artist, Aperture, and Peabody Museum Press.

At a beach café, Azerbaijani soldiers question a local man. Lankaran, Azerbaijan, 2010; from Chloe Dewe Mathews: Caspian: The Elements (Aperture and Peabody Museum Press, 2018). Courtesy the artist, Aperture, and Peabody Museum Press.

The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water, nestled between Europe and Asia, and surrounded by five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Through history, the area has been under the sway of the Persians, the Mongols, the Ottomans, and the Russians.

For five years, from 2010-2015, British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews traveled throughout this part of the world, chronicling its people, politics, and geography. Her photos detail not only the elements of its famous geology—which include oil and uranium—but also the practices that connect residents to a land they see as by turns mystical, practical, religious, and therapeutic. In her photos, Azeris seek healing by sitting in baths of crude oil in the town of Naftalan, Azerbaijan, while two Kazakh sisters walk through a field of rock towards an underground mosque.

Published by Aperture and Peabody Museum Press, and accompanied by exhibitions at Aperture Gallery in New York and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Mathews’ Caspian: The Elements offers a disquieting and kaleidoscopic look at human life in a region of the world most often seen through the lens of natural resources and geopolitics.


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