JUNK ART: the genre of choice for many Kenyan artists

JUNK ART: the genre of choice for many Kenyan artists
By Margarettawa Gacheru
Sunday Nation, Nairobi
Scrap metal used to be among the cheapest medium that struggling East African artists used to scavenge from junk yards to create what was eventually christened ‘junk art’.
Among the first junk artists to create sculptures using scrap metal were Ugandan artists, Francis Nnaggenda and John Odoch Ameny.
Odoch popularized junk art in Nairobi when he migrated to Kenya during the era of Idi Amin and exhibited life-sized scrap metal caricatures of Amin at African Heritage Pan African Gallery.
Scrap metal was still plentiful at the time. So it was no surprise that junk art became a fully-fledged genre from those ‘early days’.
Starting in the 1980s with Kioko Mwitiki (whose life-sized scrap metal wildebeests, elephants and hippos are today on permanent display at San Diego Zoo in USA), junk art has taken on a life of its own. A wide range of Kenyan junk art practitioners now exist, including Joseph Bertiers Mbatia, Harrison Mburu, Dennis Muraguri, Cyrus Nga’nga,  Ken Mwingi and Alex Wainaina whose solo exhibition of Junk Art is currently running at Le Rustique in Westlands.
In part, the popularity of junk art is because the medium has been relatively cheap and readily accessible until quite recently.
The other reason for the growth of the [junk art] genre is because master junk artists like Kioko and Odoch took on apprentices and taught them the technique and business of doing junk art.
But times have gotten tough for many junk artists, according to Kioko, Wainaina and others. The problem is the disappearance of scrap metal.
“Scrap metal has become scarce ever since the Chinese came to Kenya and began collecting and exporting it back to China,” Kioko said.
So dire was the situation that junk artists actually called upon the Kenya Government to restrict the export of scrap metal, which it did for a time. But the scrap still disappears and few culprits are caught.
Nonetheless, junk artists like Ken Mwingi have chosen to stick with the genre but branch out into other types of junk besides scrap metal. Mwingi now incorporates everything from computer monitors and bicycle spares which he generates himself.
Dennis Muraguri mixes scrap metal with textiles, broken clocks and other paraphernalia to create mask-like junk art. He has also shifted from sculpture to printmaking as one more artistic survival strategy.
Meanwhile, Cyrus Nga’nga solves the problem of shortages by sticking with beer and soda bottle tops that he hammers and stitches into everything from crocodiles to peacocks.
But Alex Wainaina has chosen to take a different tack altogether. Instead of scouring the once richly endowed scrap metal sites, the former mechanical engineer simply goes to the scrap metal ‘capital’ of Nairobi, Gikomba, and buys used oil drums.
The drums are not cheap and they are also in much demand. Wainaina explains that it’s not only the Chinese scrap metal scavengers that junk artists are in competition with today. It is also his fellow Kenyans who use the sturdy drum walls as building materials.
But Wainaina is willing to pay the price for the oil drums since junk art has been his source of livelihood for the last few years. In fact, ever since he got the contract from Village Market sometime back to scatter his scrap metal mannequins all over the up-scale shopping mall, his junk art sells itself.
Currently exhibiting both inside and out at Le Rustique restaurant through the first week of September, Wainaina’s junk art has previously been on display everywhere from Gallery Watatu and Banana Hill Art Gallery to the Nairobi National Museum.
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