Beauty Derived from Trash

Wallace Juma
Wallace Juma’s ‘Many Faces & Souls’ artwork. PHOTO | MARGARTETTA WA GACHERU 

Wallace Juma is a quiet an unassuming man, it would seem. But the graduate of Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art has made 2018 his year to come out and publicly ‘reflect’ on his life through various artistic styles and at assorted venues.

Wallace’s artistic presence was first felt in early 2018 when his Pata Pato painting won first prize at the Manjano Art Competition and Exhibition in March.

The large collage was made up of rows and columns of faces cut from glossy magazines, then coated in sooty smoke and finally etched to give an effect that was both haunting yet rather ghoulish.

But the judges loved it. I was left perplexed until I found two colourful collage and paper paintings by Wallace that were very different from the works he’d displayed during Manjano. Now I was curious.

It was now April and he was taking part in one of the monthly dusitD2 pop-up exhibitions at the hotel. But as he wasn’t around, I had to wait until June when he had his first solo exhibition at Alliance Francaise to hear him talk about his art.

Before that happened however, Wallace participated in two more group shows in early June, one at Muthaiga Heights curated by Beta-Arts; the other at the Attic Art Space.

It was at the Attic that I finally caught up with Wallace who’d partnered with two other Nairobi-based artists. It was The Attic’s founder-curater Willem Kevenaar who had brought the trio together, having seen they had a similar penchant and sensibility in common.

Collage ‘paintings’

Willem had recognised that all three, namely Meshack Oiro, Leevans Linyerera and Wallace each used recycled material as a key component in their art. For instance, Meshack, who is one of Nairobi’s most interesting, Kuona-based sculptors, is currently creating sculptures by welding bicycle chains together to shape graceful bits of human body parts.

Meanwhile Leevans creates 3D relief ‘paintings’ out of mobile phone parts which he assembles in geometric chiaroscuro patterns of light and dark.

And then there’s Wallace’s works which are etched collage ‘paintings’ similar to those that he showed at Manjano.

Only now, he explains how he collects old magazines from the Dandora dumpsite, which is the same place that he says covers everything in soot and smoke.

But after the pretty faces that he rips out of the magazines are covered in soot, he etches out images of his own to uncover and discover what lies beneath the grimy soot.

Quite a metaphor for one man’s way of transforming filth into fascinating images that now feel at once enigmatic and evocative. I finally begin to grasp why the Kenyan judges at Manjano 2018 found Wallace’s work aesthetically intriguing.

But then came ‘Reflections’, Wallace’s current one-man exhibition at Alliance Francaise. Here is where I finally begin to appreciate the way dirt can become a medium for communicating hope and possibility when the artist devises means of transforming the medium qualitatively.

In a sense, Wallace’s collage paintings in ‘Reflections’ have much in common with the etched pieces still on display at the weekend at the Attic.

Only now the works are set in sunny pastel colours, at least on the upper half of every piece. They all have a happy, almost high-noon-ish feeling to them.

Meanwhile, the lower half of the works are collages made out of cut-outs that have come from Dandora dump, a site that also happens to be just around the corner from where Wallace grew up.

Garbage economy

In contrast to his works seen at both Manjano and the Attic, Wallace’s ‘reflections’ have a sunshiny appeal. And even though the artist is still reflecting on trashy dumpsites, his paintings seem to send a different message, that of the tremendous potential for creating beauty out of trash.

In fact, Wallace even creates one installation filled with refurbished junk that he’s personally collected, cleaned and ‘curated’ for this piece!

“There’s a whole economy built around people collecting what’s retrievable from the trash and then reselling it,” says the artist who appreciates the ingenuity of those once impoverished recyclers, many of whom he says have been able to send their children to school and feed their families through the resale of refurbished trash.

As for Wallace, his current show is a testimony to the beauty that can derive from a dumpsite.