These world-acclaimed African artists make a whole new magic from the continent's junk

One person's trash, another person's treasure: Eclectic, bold, colourful, complex, and daring, they do it all.

THE transformative use of found or discarded objects into art has surged in contemporary African art galleries. 

From the types of waste used to the innovative styles of the artist, the artwork’s uniqueness has propelled several Africans onto the international stage. Their creative expressionism inspired and driven by a myriad of emotions; from the need to conserve the environment, to the struggle of financing their art. 

Here are some of Africa’s most ground-breaking up-cycle artists that redefine the way we see waste: 

El Anatsui

Born in Ghana, El Anatsui is an internationally renowned artist for his massive, striking sculptures composed of thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal that had been discarded. These usually include bottle caps and cassava graters which are bound together with copper wire. 

(Photo/Eva Blue, Gravity and Grace Monumental Works/Flickr).

He deliberately  chose these “humble metal fragments” as they provide a commentary on globalisation, consumerism, waste and the transience of people’s lives in West Africa and beyond.

Mbongeni Buthelezi

Over the past 16 years Mbongeni Buthelezi has developed himself into a powerful force in South Africa’s Visual Arts scene. While he was studying art at the Funda Community College in Diepkloof, Soweto, Buthelezi had to look for alternative materials, because he couldn’t afford to buy expensive paints and canvases. 

In a workshop with a Swiss artist who used plastic as canvas for his artworks Buthelezi got his initial inspiration. He didn’t just use plastic as the canvas, but after experimenting with a heat gun he started to use it as paint. He made “a virtue out of necessity”. 

The piece above is from his figurative works. Buthelezi is the storyteller depicting township life in a relatively realistic style. His artworks  tell the story of the black African reality but capture a fundamental global archetype as they describe, record and present the world. 

Pascale Marthine Tayou

Cameroonian artist Tayou was initially training to be a lawyer before he decided to become a self-taught artist instead. He is known for playfully combining locally found and discarded objects and materials into sculptural forms. 

(Photo/Samuel Straker, Plastic Bags).

His work seeks to address issues of individual and national identity and global consumption. 

Patrick Mulondo

Ugandan artist, Patrick Mulondo, studied sculpting at Makerere University and went on to use metal scrap together with cast fibre glass to give old, found objects a different lease of life. 

The scrap metal has a poignant role in Mulondo’s life, he lost his parents and used to lived on the streets where he survived by collecting pieces of metal to sell.  Today he uses his art to also help street children, who bring him the metals and he pays them twice what they would have got if they had sold them elsewhere. 

Elias Sime

A prominent name in the East African arts scene, this Ethiopian artist creates collages and sculptures from found objects such as thread, buttons, plastic, animal skins, horn, fabric and bottle tops, alongside organic building materials and binding agents such as mud and straw. 

(Photo/Contemporary Collector’s Council/Flickr).

As opposed to using these materials in the narrative of “old vs new”, Sime is instead interested in the new lease of life he gives them, taking greatest interest  in the way that objects and ideas can connect in new ways. 

Sadika Keskes

Sadika Keskes is a Tunisian designer and glassblowing artist who uses recycled glass for her pieces. She devoted herself to the revival of the blown glass in Tunisia, an art from the 14th century which had been largely forgotten.

Her  motto is: “The rubbish world is a huge repository for those who want to create”.

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