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Artist teaching girls how to turn garbage into glorious treasures



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Joan Otieno has been upcycling trash and turning it into glorious treasures practically as long as she has been a working artist in Nairobi.

She has created everything from plastic fashions to paintings and sculptures, all made from junk. She has also exhibited her ‘junk art’ everywhere from Alliance Francaise, Railway Museum and British Institute of East Africa to Michael Joseph Centre, Nairobi National Museum and Dust Depo Art Centre.

But since she decided to share her skills with young women from the slums, Joan has spent more time mentoring girls from Korogocho, Kibera and Kariobangi North than participating in exhibitions with other established artists.

And by the time she officially registered Warembo Wasanii in 2018, word of her mentoring had already spread such that not only young girls from the slums were coming to learn from her.

Even young women from the university were wanting to join in.

“That meant visiting garbage dumps twice a week and collecting junk that we would take home to wash and upcycle into works of art,” says Joan.

‘Home’ was initially Baba Dogo, where she had moved her studio after leaving Dust Depo, where she herself had been mentored by Patrick Mukabi. Then, with the help of her fellow artist and good friend Longinos Nagila, she got a chance to set up the studio on the rooftop of Landmark Plaza in Kariobangi North.

“Longinos introduced me to his Italian friend Maria Antonietta Pignataro who loved the idea of Warembo Wasanii. She’s been supportive of us ever since,” says Joan, who does not charge her mentees money, just as Maria Antonietta does not ask her for rent.

Currently, Joan works with 14 young women at Warembo Wasanii. They all willingly go with her to garbage dumps where they collect everything from beer cans and water bottles to plastic wrappers, bottle tops, straws and rubber shoes. Then once they’re washed, Joan shows her mentees a wide array of upcycling skills. Lately, they have been focused on tailoring and fashion design. Joan has taught them how to make skirts, dresses, hats and matching handbags as well as shoes out of plastics.

Several of Joan’s mentees were rehearsing for upcoming fashion shows this week. One will be at the Landmark Karen Mall from March 28. Another will be in April at UNEP, the second ‘trash to treasure’ fashion show Warembo Wasanii group has participated in.

At their rehearsal, Ritah, Rispa and Esther were among the mentees who wore hand-stitched plastic fashions.

All their outfits were handmade out of single-item garbage (including wrappers for condoms, cookies and sanitary pads) that got upcycled into colourful plastic fabrics and then made over into cocktail dresses, full-length gowns and even fresh bouncy outfits that could be worn as street wear if one didn’t look too closely at the labels and wonder what kind of fabric was made out of ‘Always’ wrappers.

But fashions are not the only things the young women learn to upcycle. Joan also shows them how to slice aluminium cans into strips, which they can use as yarn to weave everything from mats and wall hangings to metallic paintings and tapestries.

Warembo Wasanii’s rooftop studio has been a blessing both to Joan and these young women who keep finding their way to the studio. But Maria Antonietta says she also appreciates what Joan is doing.

She says it’s especially meaningful to her since she’s seeing Joan turn school leavers from the slums into skilled artisans. She adds that it is like watching the fulfilment of her personal conviction.

“I believe art can change the world,” she says, convinced that is doing just that, one young woman at a time.

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