The impulse to explore typically carries us toward something new. But another movement inside the art word is exploring the old: Looking at how to re-use and repurpose functional objects into things that challenge our perceptions of the world and environment.
And East African artists are at the top of this fast-rising trend. Found objects art is art that is found. Though it may seem obvious, many contemporary artists interpret this as rediscovered, repurposed or reused. These objects are used to evoke emotions felt at the time or powerful concepts and given purpose and significance by those who find and conceptualize them into artwork.
From its origins with Pablo Picasso’s “Still life with Chair Caning” to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” which designated unaltered everydayobjects as art – found objects art has grown from strength to strength and currently finds its most robust expression in the move toward the use of recycled objects and the growing popularity of street art incorporating reflective subjects using materials found on site.
In our exploration of contemporary art in Kenya and East Africa, found objects art speaks volumes to the ways in which our society has grown and the ways in which we choose to express ourselves as indicative and representative of our environment. In other words – it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it definitely has to be real.
The growing popularity of found objects art in East Africa didn’t start recently. The environment has for a long time influenced conversations around art and culture and it was only a matter of time before these conversations began to show themselves in popular culture and art. The most obvious example is the rise of music groups such as UKOO Fulani and Kalamashaka in the 1990s. They spoke against an environment that was aesthetically corrupt and polluted and even spoke from personal experience about their local neighborhoods which bordered the sprawling Dandora dumpsite, a 30-acre wasteland that was officially closed in 1975 but has remained in use. An early example of found objects art is the popularity of the use of recycled materials within arts communities and in the formation of new visual trends and cultures. Years before recycling became de rigueur and repurposing a popular mode for artists, many East African artists made careers as “found object” artists – albeit not purposely. Its origins in the East African art scene was forged out of necessity. African art legends such as Tinga Tinga built the strength of their artistic movements working in unconventional materials which often excluded works on paper or canvas. Using industrial paints and working on cardboard, cloth, and rubber mostly salvaged from industrial waste sites, they depicted the closeness and intimacy of their congenital heritage with the struggle towards modernity and building publics to whom they could converse.
Today found objects art depicts the same struggles though it has become more meditative and self-conscious as its significance has grown. Among regional artists exploiting found objects art, we see its significance in its reliance on the context in which it is applied or used. The result is a blurring of the original concept of what things are and are not art, as well as challenging the nature of what is considered to be art.
A favorite among found object artists is Cyrus Kabiru, a young artist based at the Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts, in Hurlingham, Nairobi. Using repurposed everyday objects, ranging from spoons and bottle tops to the most intimate fragments of computer circuits and transistor radios, Cyrus has built an international brand around his collection of non-functional eyewear, fondly dubbed and worn as “C-Stunners,” which have a certain energy and playfulness that captures the sensibility and attitude of the youth generation in Nairobi. Portraying the aspiration of popular culture towards “bling,” the C- Stunners reflect the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people. The lenses provide a new filter and give a fresh perspective to the world we live in and influence not only outward appearances and perceptions but also our collective frame of mind. Cyrus’ work embodies his role as a collector of Nairobi cast-offs, a very personal response to a city with a reactive personality and is a key example of the very private ways in which found objects art can influence us in ways that other art forms have often fallen short. Our waste is indeed reflective of who we are.
Another artist, Gor Soudan, also based at the Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts, uses found objects in a different way. Soudan uses recycled materials, such as juala (polythene bags), reclaimed wood, and scrap metal and plastic. He distorts them and adapts them beyond their original purpose as a reflection on how the personality of the modern society reflects the conspiracy of the ultimate cover-up: that nothing and no one is really what they claim to be and that to trust one’s environment is all at once the ultimate error in judgment and the path to true freedom. Soudan’s latest series, “Angry Birds,” is an on-going experiment with discarded materials where through he reflects on the character of the crow (which we have to assume represents us – our society, and our humanity or lack of it) – scavenging refuse, adapting to constantly shifting surroundings, and growing from strength to strength in these adaptations. That is, we are evolving. The question is: What are we evolving into? And Gor Soudan’s choice of medium – found objects – is not only significant in this case, it is obvious. This is the generation that wants it all and they believe – rightly or wrongly – that they can have it all. They are hyper-conscious of the excesses of liberal economics and democracy and yet they also inevitably aspire to be mass consumers.
So here we are. We have turned our world upside down and crowded it with our bodies and our waste. Our elevation of aesthetics has led us to desperately and continually hide from view the realities of our destruction. We have isolated ourselves from nature and scorned anything that comes to us with the label of organic and authentic to our humanity. The movement towards found objects art is a move by artists to reveal the realities of who and what humanity is by presenting us with our own “things” as a way of forcing us to take an honest look at ourselves. Conceptual art, of which found objects art is a great part, proclaims the primacy of the artist’s idea, but more so it places the artist in the position of voyeur, the uninvited observer into our society – our lives, our homes and ourselves. Therefore the art object and the form contained within it, in the strict sense, are secondary.
In exploring found objects art, the current tendencies and emphasis of contemporary art towards self-criticism cannot ignore the relevance of re-using the things that we have used before, and using differently the things that we use every day. We have to suppose that while most art is geared at making us reflect on ourselves, found objects art is our society looking back at us and passing judgment on the ways we have chosen to be. When all is said and done, found objects as a form of art might be the opportunity that we have been given as a society and a species to redeem ourselves. In paying attention to the progress of found object art we have the advantage to see ourselves through a mirror that is unaltered and without flaws. The mirror of whom we have chosen to be and how we have chosen to be it. In looking at the ways in which found objects - things that have in essence been cast off and rejected - can re-enter our world and become things of incredible significance and beauty, we find that we are not as beautiful as we thought we were.
Kuona Trust is a non for profit trust established in 1995. Its ambition is to create opportunities for dialogue for African artists as they seek to define themselves against international markets and in the context of shifting cultural identities. Kuona Trust currently hosts 37 individual artists in the space, in Kilimani, Nairobi - the studios shared among up to seven artists, are movable, refurbished shipping containers which allow the artists the opportunities to grow their craft within a communal setting, through group interactions.
Organizationally Kuona Trust is responsible for all marketing and project activities the artists are involved in. The aim of this is that artists are afforded the opportunities to expand their skills outside of the limits of formal structures for example education.
Kuona’s mission to advance the skills and opportunities of contemporary visual artists to create innovative, world-class art in Kenya.’ Kuona”s Vision‘Art is a valued and integral part of our society.’