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Kenyan artist Darshana Raja among 30 finalists for Loewe prize



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Darshana Raja, a Kenyan born and bred in the United Kingdom who came back in 2017, has been nominated for the prestigious 2020 Loewe Craft Prize in Paris.

She is the only African to make it to the list of 30 finalists out of the 2,920 submissions that were made by participants from around the globe as at October 2019.
Her work, called the ‘Whole hole’ a two-metre circular piece, which survived the initial stages, is already in France and will be exhibited at the Musee Des Arts Decoratif within the Palais Louvre for two months this year.

The mother of three says she is elated to have made it to a platform she had only imagined. She revealed that she would not have joined the competition if it was not for a friend who referred her to his acquaintance based in the US who asked for photos of her artwork, and urged her to submit them.

Ms Raja took an arts course that dealt with metalwork, woodwork, ceramics, plastics and granite at the University of Brighton in the UK.
“It is all about learning new skills daily. My work is idea-based. I sit down, get an idea and get materials that suit the idea to bring it to life,” Ms Raja said.

She often gets the wood she uses from local furniture makers’ waste. As much as she would not describe herself as an environmentalist or a conservationist, she knows that it is essential to utilise what would have otherwise been useless and turn it to something beautiful. Her work is centred on making waste more aesthetic.


“For the time I have been in Kenya I have noticed how resourceful and economical people are; what one person may see as waste, someone finds it useful and will recycle it to whatever they want. This is in contrast with what I have seen in the West, having been brought up in England. This is a very different kind of culture,” she said.

Her shortlisted work was built using the wood she collected from local carpenters and varnished it with beeswax. It was made from Mvuli wood offcuts and assembled in a mathematical configuration.

Straight, wooden sticks were shaped into beautiful curves creating a sun-like presence in a rhythmic and elegant arrangement. The entire process took two months to complete. She said that through the Internet, she learnt a Japanese technique – shou sugi ban – to treat wood surfaces.

“I made this formal structure, which is almost like a perfect circle but from very different pieces of wood. I am not good in math, but I figured it out and ensured that the spaces between each wooden component is made from old rubber insulation tubing, simply, salvaging rubbish,” she explained.

Most of her work is inspired by architecture and fashion designs. She draws her inspiration from the renowned fashion designer Iris Van Herpen and Andy Goldsworthy. Locally, Wangechi Mutu, who she describes as an international superstar in the art world, motivates her.

Ms Raja also uses glass bottles to make chandeliers by melting the glass to attain an opaque nature, which slightly resembles sea glass and moulded to suit a specific design that the artist desires.

She uses high-grade terrazzo to make wash basins and has even learnt how to make objects using granite from local stone carvers. Her love for ceramics proved so strong that she pursued a master’s in ceramics at the Royal College in the UK.

Ms Raja said she hopes her feat will inspire someone out there who is thinking of joining the contemporary art space.

She advises the youth to choose their careers by going for what exactly makes them happy and not what others want them to do.

“I have three children, and they all have different interests. My last-born, who is 12, loves art and draws all day, my first-born, at 16, loves languages and drama and spends her days writing plays. The one in between, 14, plays tennis,” she said.

The winner of the Loewe Craft will bag a prize of 50,000 Euros which is about Sh5.71 million.

Should she win, Ms Roja plans to use the money to develop more art work as she feels that contemporary art is sadly dying out in Africa.

“I do not have the resources yet, but I would really love to share what I know with others, I see many good art works even right here in Kenya, some are even displayed along the roads, ” she said.

The winner of the Loewe Craft prize will be announced on May 19 and the work of the finalists will be exhinited at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris from May 21 to July 12 this year.

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