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How creatives fashion waste into gems of art

Harrison Mburu hammers
Harrison Mburu hammers scrap metal into wildlife. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Oftentimes, art materials are too pricey for struggling Kenyan artists to afford.

On the other hand, some artists prefer to experiment with alternative materials.

For instance, when Cyrus Kabiru started creating sculptures out of scrap metal, he used to hire young boys to collect discarded bottle tops from bars. After that, he would hammer them flat and reshape them into crocodiles and scarecrows.

Then he started transforming old bicycle frames into beautiful works of art.

Now, he is a world-acclaimed artist whose ‘C-Stunner’ sculpted eye wear which is exhibited everywhere from the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in South Africa to multiple magazine covers and private art collections all over the world.

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Meshak Oiro is another artist who rummages junkyards to collect the materials he requires to create sculptures. He looks for discarded bicycle chains that he solders into sculptures like the ‘Cinderella shoe’.

Joan Otieno visits junk yards twice a week with the young women she mentors at Warembo Wasanii.

Together they collect plastics which they take back to their Kariobangi North studio to wash and up cycle into plastic ‘fashions’ which the girls model at venues like UNEP and the Landmark Building in Nairobi.

Private airstrips

Sam Omondi and Khan Key find their art materials primarily at private airstrips where pilots tend to leave their derelict aeroplanes.

“The pilots are usually happy to have us dismember their old planes,” says Sam who, like Khan, is a trained architect who prefers making furniture from aeroplane spare parts.

For instance, they use propellers to make coffee tables, turn a small plane’s fuselage into a beverage bar. They even transform aircraft wings into dinner tables.

But possibly the most touching story of an artist recycling used materials into beautiful works of art is that of 94-year-old Rosemary Karuga. Rosemary is the first Kenyan woman to go to Makerere University’s Margaret Trowel School of Art in 1950. She graduated in 1952, then got married and had a family.

For several debates, she disappeared from the local art scene. To sustain her family, she taught art in a Kiambu Primary School.

By the time her children were grown and Rosemary felt compelled to reconnect with the professional artist she had once been, she had no means to buy materials.

It was then that she began creating collage art, using scraps of paper jackets from home products like Rexona soap and Unga flour. Today, she lives abroad with her daughter but her art is just as fresh as ever.

Mitumba

Another source of artistic innovation is ‘mitumba’ or second-hand clothing.

One artist who studied fine art at Kenyatta University but had no funds to start up his artistic practice is Evans Ngure.

What he did have was knowledge that women bought ‘mitumba’ at Gikomba and used it to make saleable baby clothes.

“They used to snip off the buttons from the clothes they bought. So after they left, I used to collect the buttons and use them to make jewellery that I sold at art fairs,” says Evans, describing how he raised the seed capital to start up his artistic career.

Peter Walala also used second-hand clothes as the source of the art materials that won him a first-prize at the 2016 Manjano Art Competition.

“I’d get mitumba, clip off the labels and then stitch them altogether,” says the son of a tailor who taught him from childhood how to use a sewing machine.

Walala’s labels, which looked like a giant abstract collage, won awards for his ingenious use of a medium no one had previously thought of as fodder for creating a work of art.

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