By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 6 December 2018 for Saturday Nation)
Upcycling is different from recycling. Both processes involve the use of garbage, or put more politely, ‘discarded objects’. But recycled junk tends to remains just junk only that it’s sorted and then sent somewhere to either be disposed of safely or used to make something else.
That’s not so very different from upcycling except that the upcycled junk is specifically used to create something of higher quality or value than the original material.
Today there are many Kenyan artists who are busy upcycling. Some are doing so because the junk is far more affordable than conventional art materials like canvas, acrylic, oil or spray paints. For others it’s the environmental appeal and the pride of knowing they are creating value out of what someone else has seen as valueless.
Then there are artists like Evans Ngure, one of the six artists whose ‘upcycled’ art is on display at the Polka Dot Gallery for the next few days. Evans used to be a painter until one of his lecturers in Kenyatta University’s art department encouraged him to explore the artistic potential in more unconventional art materials. ‘
“Her advice helped me open my thinking to begin experimenting with all sorts of things,” he says referring to Anne Mwiti who taught him in his third year at KU. Her advice led to a major change in Evans’ art practice such that now, he rarely if ever picks up a paint brush. He’s more inclined to work with plyers on all kinds of found objects.
From the look of the six sculptures that he’s got in Polka Dot’s current show entitled ‘Un-found’, Evans found and reassembled (or upcycled) everything from parts of old cars, bicycles, TVs and telephones to an old hacksaw, crash helmet, scissors and piping from a junked motorcycle. He’s also got plenty of screws, nuts and bolts keeping his artworks intact.
The point is, Evans creates art from junk for the pure joy of it. The works themselves testify to the fun he’s been having in transforming, for instance, a hacksaw into a friendly ‘bull’ or a hollowed out TV box into a 3D frame (or is it a cage) wherein one of his scissor-birds resides.
But Evans isn’t the only artist in the show to display quite a bit of wit, ingenuity and resourceful in the way he or she creates their upcycled art. Leena Shah for one has used old glossy fashion magazines to create collage art that sparkles as she’s designed her own surreal notion of fashion, suggesting she’s got many more upcycled collages to make, since the medium clearly suits her.
Lionel R. Garang uses old gunny sacks in place of canvas for his series of automobile paintings. Richard Njogu is also a painter only he works with ‘found’ vinyl ‘45’ records to create portraits of beautiful women, prominent musicians and ‘celebs’ like the late Bob Marley, Loren Hill and others.
Wallace Juma and Rogan Anjuli are also painters, although they too are very different. Wallace paints actual junk heaps, but he does so in such a way that his junk is meticulously detailed, distinctively colored, branded and strewn beneath pastel skies that look almost heavenly.
In contrast, Rogan substitutes canvas for leather which he too has found, but then beautified with portraits of people that have been embossed into the leather to ensure a sense of permanence.
‘Un-founded’ is Polka Dot’s first upcycled art exhibition, but it should not be the last since there are countless more young Kenyans who’ve discovered they need not buy expensive art materials to express themselves in fresh and innovative ways. Most would love to be in Polka Dot’s next ‘un-found’ show.
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