Findings? Exploring Nairobi
by Renee Akitelek Mboya - writer
The impulse to explore is always towards new things, but a new movement of art is exploring old things in looking at how to re-use and repurpose non-art functional objects into things that challenge our perceptions of the world and of our environment; and East African artists are at the peak 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 conceptualise them into artwork.
From its origins with Pablo Picasso’s “Still Life With Chair Caning” to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” which designated unaltered everyday objects as art, the best example being “The Fountain” which was a standard urinal mounted on a pedestal – found objects art has grown from strength to strength and currently finds its most robust expression in the move towards 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 in East Africa at large, 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 does not have to be pretty, but it definitely has to be real.
The growing popularity of found objects art in East Africa did not start recently. For a long time, the environment has 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 being the rise of music groups such as UKOO Fulani and Kalamashaka in the 1990’s who spoke against an environment that was aesthetically corrupt and polluted, speaking from personal experience about their local neighbourhoods which bordered the sprawling Dandora dumpsite – a thirty acre wasteland that was officially closed in 1975 but has remained in use to date, existing as a constant health hazard to residents in neighbouring estates and as a testament to a city on the brink of progress.
As these trends encroach into the culture of visual arts, the examples for them become all the more obvious with the early example of 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 having been 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 a challenging of the nature of what is considered to be art.
A favourite 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 providing a new filter and giving a fresh perspective to the world we live in and influencing not only outward appearances and perceptions but as well, our collective frame of mind and our reflection on ourselves. 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 here in Nairobi, uses found objects in a different way. Soudan uses recycled materials, such as juala (polythene bags), reclaimed wood, scrap metal, and plastic; distorting them and adapting them beyond their original purpose as a reflection on how the personality of 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 judgement and the path to true freedom. Soudan’s latest series, “Angry Birds” is an on-going experiment with discarded materials, where through his work 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; 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 – in Nairobi, in East Africa and in the world – 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 a 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 after all, that while most art is geared at making us reflect on ourselves, found objects art is our society looking back at us and passing judgement on the ways we have chosen to be. When all is said and done, found objects as a form of art – and a fast growing one at that – 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 who 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.