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You can make art out of anything

Sculptor and painter Cyrus Kabiru. [Muhunyo Maina, Standard]

There are many different mediums that artistes use to make their pieces. All of us know of drawing in pencil, but one can use charcoal, schoolboard chalk or even ink pens to draw. I have seen artistes use any and everything to create art.

From painters who paint using general household items such as coffee and tea to sculptors who used recycled materials; scrap metal, kitchen utensils such as forks, knives and spoons and even old soda bottles.

I paint using regular household bleach, Jik, which reacts to any ink-covered surface in the same way pencils draw on paper. Conventional art materials, such as oil and acrylic paints, sculpting clay, wood or stone can be extremely expensive to acquire, especially if you create art regularly.

But this should not deter people from creating. As we shall see in this article, if you are driven to create, you can use anything as a canvas.

One of Kenya’s globally renowned artistes does not use conventional materials at all in his art. Indeed, Cyrus Kabiru’s fame in large part comes from the fact that he “gives trash a second chance”.

Cyrus Kabiru famously uses rubbish, scrap metal, electronic waste and other junk to make his C-stunners, eyewear and sunglasses which he crafts by hand. The story of Kabiru’s C Stunners began in his childhood. As a child growing up in Kibera, Kabiru desperately wanted a pair of sunglasses.

However, as his parents were unable to afford them, Kabiru’s father instructed him to make his own. He looked to his immediate surroundings to achieve his desire and managed to turn squalor into art.

His C-stunners are incredibly creative, performative and vibrant pieces of art. “When you walk in town and you see someone wearing my glasses,” Cyrus says, “the glasses will take all your attention. If you have any stress, it will act like therapy.”

Kabiru’s C-stunners are empowering works of art, in which he turns discarded, worthless pieces of junk into high-fashion eyewear.

His ingenuity and creativity have earned him worldwide acclaim, as no other artiste before him has overtly incorporated themes of recycling and sustainably in their work. Kabiru was even invited to participate in a climate change summit in Paris in 2016. Kabiru’s use of rubbish as his medium of choice is not ad hoc or random, but an intentional act of activism.

He intentionally recycles e-waste, derelict hardware from old computers, speakers and other electronics, as stated in a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera ‘The most dangerous waste that will mess our continent, our places are electronics.

We need to think about how we can stop making more motherboards. We need to recycle them; we need to change our mentality. We need to be creative with what we are doing.’

Throughout Africa, renowned artistes also use similar materials in their art, such as the acclaimed Ghanaian artiste El Anatsui, who recycles beer and liquor bottle caps in his globally acclaimed sculptures and installations. At first glance, Anatsui’s work does resemble textile fabrics, reminiscent of the Kente cloth made by his fellow countrymen for many generations. He reshapes and reconfigures these bottle caps by ‘cutting them and opening them up and belting them together to create very huge sheets.

Anatsui’s artistic practice is a sustainable and affordable one, as he explains that “alcoholic drinks are consumed a lot in where I come from, in the little village of Nsuka. These are what I collect. The people who distill these drinks have a culture of collecting or recycling the bottles that are used. And in the process of recycling, they have to discard the tops and so these become ready material for me to use.”

His artworks are designed not to be fixed, but to flow freely like fabric, as Anatsui stated in a 2011 interview that “life is not something which is cut and dry, it is something which is constantly in a state of change. I want my artworks to have that experience, to replicate that experience. Each time that they are brought out is an opportunity for them to take on a new shape.”

The various colours in traditional Kente cloth had different symbolic meanings and were worn by the elites of the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana. 

Similarly, Anatsui uses recycled bottle tops to create tapestries that have symbolic meaning according to their configuration and the colours he selects. But what informs all of Anatsui’s work is the idea of play. He considers these sheets of bottle caps as “something like a data, a basic data that I use in playing around to arrive at different forms.”

This idea of play is essential if artistes want to make artwork freely and unrestricted. Anatsui’s advice to young artistes is to just do it.

The golden rule is there are no rules. As an artiste, I think your worth is determined by how you can operate without rules. This idea of play, therefore, allows the artiste to use whatever material he or she sees fit or whatever is available to them and opens up the possibilities of making art with anything under the sun.