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Creating art from garbage

   Anki Kallstrom with the printing press at Kuona. Photo/COURTESY
Anki Kallstrom with the printing press at Kuona. Photo/COURTESY 

The saga of the Swedish printing press is a story with a happy ending. It took the shape of a series of printmaking workshops run by the Swedish painter-printmaker Anki Kallstrom in June and July, culminating in a fascinating exhibition of original prints on paper and cotton cloth (including the hard board ‘plates’ on which artists etched) produced by close to 20 Kuona-based artists, most of whom had little or no experience with printmaking.

The exhibition entitled Discoveries Within was originally named Discoveries around the Corner since Kallstrom had found the objects that feature most prominently in this compact yet eclectic show ‘around the corner’ from Kuona Trust where she has been a visiting resident artist since June.

While conducting the week-long workshop with fellow artists from the Trust (the others were done for the public), the Swedish printmaker accepted the group’s consensus call which was to name their exhibition in relation to the notion that nearly all the art in this show comes from within Kuona itself.

And in fact, what I found most impressive about this showcase of intaglio and collrgraph prints is the way the artwork offered a sort of snapshot of each artist’s creative styles. For instance, Cyrus Ng’ang’a who is currently sculpting his ‘c-stunner’ shades in scrap wire (and other miscellaneous paraphernalia) took the opportunity of Kallstrom’s crash course to translate his wire works into prints.

Dennis Muraguri is big on matatu art just now, so his prints featured vehicles and gears from the Kenyan mini-van. Rosemary Ahoro has her colourful portraits. And the award-winning painter Wycliffe Opondo also chose to replicate the railway image on the hard paper that passed through the printing press.

In fact, Opondo has known Kallstrom from his first days in Sweden where he’d been invited as one of the Maasai Mbili artists to attend a print-making workshop in Stockholm. Since then, ‘Wiki’ (as he’s known) has shifted to Kuona, but he was still working in Kibera with ‘M2’ when the saga began and one Swedish Foundation offered to send Maasai Mbili artists their own printing press.

Initially, the press was supposed to arrive in November 2011. That’s when Kallstrom first came to Kenya to introduce the first print-making sessions on the new press in Kibera. “But the press never came. It went ‘missing’ and it took my going back to Sweden to find its whereabouts,” she said.

It took her months to sort out the red tape involved with Swedish shipping, but the press finally arrived early in 2012. Unfortunately, in spite of the Foundation having given the press as a free gift to M2, the process accrued many more costs that the Kibera-based artists couldn’t afford.

The only way they could eventually get the press out of customs was to get a loan from Kuona Trust. But as M2 hasn’t yet paid back that loan, the press is being stored at the Trust for the time being.

In the interim, Kallstrom applied for and won a two-month art residency at Kuona and finally got to run the workshops on the Swedish press as she had initially been commissioned to do. At the same time, she has been preparing her own prints to exhibit later this month with Wiki Opondo at Le Rustique restaurant in Westlands.

Some of her work will also go back to Sweden where she’ll be mounting a one-woman exhibition in October in Stockholm. “Most of the work for the Swedish show is complete but I wanted to include prints from my time in Kenya which are representative of everyday Nairobi life,” she said.

This being her third trip to Kenya and the one that’s finally allowed her to fulfil her commissioned assignment, Kallstrom was still not sure about what was the best subject matter for her own print series.

“Then I went around the corner from Kuona and that was where I found heaps of garbage,” she said. “I began picking up used plastic bottles which seemed to be everywhere.” She also found plastic bags too prevalent to ignore. So garbage became the striking subject matter of her art.

Transforming ugly garbage into exquisite cloth prints (the cloth collected from Toi Market), Kallstrom has managed to make amazing semi-abstract designs using crushed bags and water bottles exclusively.

She’s hardly the first person to create art out of garbage. Kenyan artists like Ng’ang’a, Muraguri, Kioko and Wainaina have also experimented artistically with trash. But when her art hangs side by side with Wiki’s later this month, she’ll be back in Sweden but her personal brand of ‘junk art’ will place the final stamp on the saga of the Swedish printing press.

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