Joan Otieno has once again proved that she can not only turn ‘trash into treasure’, which is also the title of the current exhibition of artworks by Warembo Wasanii and her, the group’s founder and mama-mentor.
Joan can also 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. It was also evident on the show’s opening night when the young (20-25 years old) 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 growing 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 get down to the dirty business of collecting all things plastic, be they bottles, bags, wrappers or spoons. They collect other forms of trash as well, such as Colgate toothpaste tubes which they take back to their WW studio in Kariobangi North (registered by Joan in 2018)
and clean along with all the other junk they pick up.
“Everything we use to create our art comes from the dumpsite,” says Joan [who’s gotten no donor support either to start or sustain her group]. 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 Colgate 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 Trust condom and Always sanitary pad wrappers to Naivas and Tusky bags to Blueband lids and Kabras sugar sacks.
Only one dress is currently on display at AF. 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 inside on 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 4 graduates plus three university students. “The students come whenever they don’t have classes,” she says noting that currently, eight of her women come to the studio every day. They are Risper, Lorraine, Esther, Yvonne, Eddah, Rita, Aggie and Brenda. The rest come when they can since Joan puts no pressure on any of them. But she admits, one of her girls go 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.”
Fortunately, she met Mukabi at The GoDown before he moved to the Railway Museum. Through him she met another artist Longinos Nagila who helped her find the Kariobangi North studio.
Joan and the Warembo Wasanii women have had several recycled art fashion shows: one at UN Habitat, one at USIU and one at a SWAN fair (Support women artists now).