Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
photographs by kristin-lee moolman
art direction and styling by louise ford
hair styling by yann turchi
presented by ERE
supported by Farago Projects
Western fashion media have hailed the rise of DIY as a pandemic-era fad. But in Nairobi’s Warembo Wasanii—a community program that teaches women to create art from trash—a culture of upcycling was born to solve the problem of imported waste.
Just a few minutes walk from Joan Otieno’s artist studio in Korogocho, Nairobi is a giant landfill. It is an ever-growing mountain of discarded garbage from all over the world. But Otieno isn’t bothered by it. On the contrary: it inspires her. “I don’t see these things as waste material,” Otieno said. “To me, [plastic] is a gift. It is available, adorable and I view it this way with a passion.”
Otieno’s creative practice is built on recycling and repurposing waste materials as a way of reimagining their value. She spent much of her early 20s experimenting with different media before settling on the transformation of waste into art—a logical step considering the materials are cheap and readily available, especially in Kenya, a country that is routinely treated as a dumping ground by the West. The immediate access to plastics and other waste products is why she first decided to look for supplies in local junkyards in Kariobangi and Dandora, which is one of Africa’s largest unregulated landfill sites. Using found bottle caps, yogurt pots, and Colgate wrappers, Otieno would create wearable sculptures in a variety of colors and playful silhouettes.
“In my process, I consider how I want people to look at this material. I want it to spark a conversation,” she said. “That’s how you shift people’s thinking from seeing a branded rice package from a different perspective and with respect.”
Now, Otieno runs Warembo Wasanii art studio, a program of workshops in which she teaches young women and girls how to source trash and upcycle it. Warembo Wasanii—which consists of a studio where the students work as well as a gallery that showcases and sells their art—is as much a space for women to express themselves creatively as it is a means for them to gain financial independence.
“In the West we think that, if we can’t find use for an item, we have to bin it. What these women do so intelligently is alter the context of these items.”
It’s this sisterhood that Warembo Wasanii’s most recent exhibition, titled Mokoro, celebrates. Lensed by Kristin-Lee Moolman, art directed and styled by Louise Ford, and produced and curated by Emmanuelle Atlan of Farago Projects and Sophie Strobele of ERE Foundation, the show—which opens today—includes photographs, videos, and soundscapes featuring the women of Warembo Wasanii in elaborate, handmade garments they’ve been building over a four-year period. The images are powerful, composed of confident women staring into the camera’s lens, and serve as an homage to Otieno’s determination to democratize knowledge and expertise that extend the lifespan of discarded items in groundbreaking, imaginative new ways.
“Across the African continent, upcycling is a necessity,” said Moolman, who is from South Africa. “People use recycled plastics all the time to create these amazing sculptures and art installations. This DIY approach to creating can produce great art without factories melting things down and remolding them. It’s totally sustainable and really beautiful; that’s what we wanted to capture.”
It’s true—in the West, fashion media have been hailing the rise of DIY as a pandemic-era trend. In Warembo Wasanii, however, a culture of upcycling was born to solve the problem of imported waste and overpriced clothes, especially among Nairobi’s poorest communities who continue to be most impacted by the toxicity generated from smoking landfills and the inflated cost of living. It’s why Warembo Wasanii’s DIY approach to creativity is a vehicle for self-realization: the program teaches young women to become financially independent; it teaches them valuable business skills and innovative new ways of problem-solving.
These lessons extend far beyond the women of Warembo Wasanii. “We have to change our perception of what is valuable,” said Strobele. “In the West we think that, if we can’t find use for an item, we have to bin it. What these women do so intelligently is alter the context of these items. They take something that’s been deemed to be trash and express themselves by finding a new purpose for that thing. That’s inspiring.”
Of course, the reality isn’t straightforward. Sourcing usable plastics for upcycling projects among heaps of garbage has considerable risks, not least the discarded needles and sharp metal scraps mixed up in the mountains of waste that can cause serious injury. There are also the toxic chemicals leaking from dumpsters that the United Nations Environment Program has since 2007 deemed a serious hazard to those working and living nearby.
“These women are heroes,” said Ford. “They are turning these discarded materials into objects of desire and aspiration. They make these amazing clothes and they stun their community with their fashion shows. It’s a beautiful story; the girls are setting an amazing example of what it means to turn one person’s waste into another person’s treasure. But it’s also important to note that it’s not sustainable. Not at all.”
It means that Otieno has to take additional action to ensure the safety of the women enrolled in Warembo Wasanii. For example: when they go waste-walking, Otieno’s mentees are accompanied by a team of security guards who oversee the hierarchies of the dump site and ensure the women are free to collect their materials safely. Otieno also typically leads the trash walks to ensure safe routes are taken by the women as they navigate the landfill.
Teamwork is at the heart of Warembo Wasanii, a space built on care and compassion—and radical feminist imaginings. “Art collectives can be a playground for alternative social constellations,” said Strobele. “And with Joan, that means showing the women she tutors how this world could look under a matriarchy.”
Moolman agrees—Otieno is paving the way for the next generation of Korogocho women. “With many charitable causes, the drive is often money or recognition, whereas her initiative is completely selfless,” she said. “I think she is driven by a love of growing this community of strong women, but also by her complete devotion to and love of the process of making art.”
Mokoro will be on show at Galerie Mercier et Associés in Paris from June 23 to 25. Following the Paris show, Mokoro will be shown in Nairobi and at the V&A Museum during London Design Festival 17-25 September in association with Nataal Media.