Joan Otieno has once again proven that she can turn ‘trash into treasure’, which is also the title of the current exhibition of artworks by herself and Warembo Wasanii, the group she founded and mentors.
Joan has also shown that she can train young women (and several men) to cultivate the same transformative power and prove it with an art exhibition that fills the whole ground floor of Alliance Francaise. Warembo women modeled their plastic fashions, all of which they had created themselves.
Yet Joan wasn’t just training tailors and seamstresses although she did teach them how to create their own designs and cut out their own patterns. She was teaching a squad of 14 young women and two men about conservation and how to save the planet from choking to death on the garbage human beings generate one plastic bag and bottle at a time.
She’s also training aspiring artists how to create their own art materials by going with her twice a week to dumpsites all over Eastlands, where they collect all things plastic, be they bottles, bags, wrappers or spoons. They collect other forms of trash as well, such as toothpaste tubes which they take back to their WW studio in Kariobangi North (registered by Joan in 2018), where they clean it along with all the other junk they pick up.
“Everything we use to create our art comes from the dumpsite,” says Joan. The only exceptions are the tools that she buys, such as scissors, needles, threads, a hammer and slicer used to, for instance, cut open the toothpaste tubes.
“After we wash the opened tubes, we hammer them flat, then stitch them together into fabric,” she adds, noting that one toothpaste tube dress was made and modeled in the fashion show on opening night.
Other dresses were made and modeled that night out of everything from condom wrappers and sanitary pad wrappers to Naivas and Tusky bags to Blueband lids and Kabras sugar sacks.
Only one dress is currently on display at Alliance Francaise. It is the huge plastic bag gown that Joan created especially for the exhibition poster photo. “It’s called ‘Mother Nature Isn’t Happy’”, says Joan who had a special photo shoot with her standing at a dumpsite, her face painted like a ghost.
“I stood for the shoot, and people walked past me without even noticing me,” her bag dress blending in with the trash landscape. “But when I jumped up and made noise, people ran away, scared I was a monster or a ghost.”
Joan’s original plan was to train school girl dropouts, but as it is, all of her trainees are Form Four leavers while three are university students.
“The students come whenever they don’t have classes,” she says noting that currently, eight of the women come to the studio every day. They are Risper, Lorraine, Esther, Yvonne, Eddah, Rita, Aggie and Brenda. The rest come whenever they can since Joan puts no pressure on any of them. But, one of her girls got pregnant soon after WW began.
“She created one of the [plastic bag] paintings before she went to deliver,” says Joan who adds that one reason she opened WW was to provide young women with a safe haven where they could learn new skills and not be vulnerable to the hazards women and girls can find on the streets.
At Alliance Francaise, most of the artworks are portraits made from the same materials as the dresses, including plastic soda bottles and party cups which get turned into fancy hair styles.
Before founding Warembo Wasanii, Joan was based at Dust Depo Art Studio where Patrick Mukabi was her mentor. And before that, she trained in accounting at the Kenya College of Accountancy.
“I had studied art in secondary school, planning on following in my father’s footsteps since he was a professional painter. But my step-father insisted I study accounts.”