These artists turn trash into clothes to take a stand
It started as a counter-cultural art movement in 2001.
After years of study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa – following teachers’ advice on creating works with “appropriate” materials, such as resin and plaster of Paris – some students from the Republic Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have decided to do something different. . They created art with what was in their immediate environment, including tires, exhaust pipes, foam, plastic bottles, antennae, cans containing milk or paint, feathers, CDs, rubber slippers and other discarded items.
This work, the artists thought, was familiar to a Congolese audience and spoke to a particularly glaring aspect of Congolese life: waste.
Waste generated locally by citizens. Waste imposed on the country by hyper-consumerist nations. Waste triggered by the endless extraction of resources from the land of the DRC, or the rapacious collection of the same land above.
In Kinshasa, the gutters are full of non-recyclable plastic bottles. Markets are flooded with second-hand and third-hand goods, scrap from high-income countries and, at an accelerating rate, from China. In areas where international companies mine cobalt, a valuable component of smartphone batteries, frequent discharges contaminate river systems and surrounding life.
By reusing waste to create sculptures and performances, the artists wanted to awaken the public’s acuity in the face of a permanent emergency. In 2015, they laid the foundations of a collective to institutionalize art: Ndaku Ya Life Is Beautiful, directed by Eddy Ekete. An artist and social activist of Kinshasa origin, Ekete also founded the KinAct Festival, annual showcase of provocative creations. Increasingly, for artists, waste offers an opening to comment on tense socio-political issues.
Robot Annonce, a wearable sculpture by Jared Kalenga, is made of broken radio parts. It aims to raise awareness of the ever-increasing scope of fake news.
Femme Electrique, Falonne Mambu’s creation made of electric wires, is a double-edged sword. He talks about the scarcity of electricity service in the DRC and, simultaneously, what happens in the dark: sexual assaults, kidnappings. Mambu’s inspiration for the work was drawn from times in her life when she was homeless.
These socially conscious creators who turn trash into protest art “are here to push the boundaries,” says Yvon Edoumou, founder of Kinshasa’s Malabo Gallery. “We don’t see a lot of that.”
This story appears in the June 2022 issue of National geographic magazine.