‘Modern Mask’ | Cyrus Kabiru’s art imagines a future that defies the concept of modernisation.

Afrofuturism’s Reflection on Waste And Climate Crisis


As a researcher working on discourses and practices of circular economy, I have been intrigued by a compelling inquiry into the use and value of materials beyond socioeconomic domains in Kenya. More specifically, I have been drawn into the vibrant visual arts landscape of Nairobi, where the fusion of materials, sourced from natural surroundings and mundane experiences, pulsates with an Afro-futuristic allure.

Afrofuturism is an imaginary cultural aesthetic emerging in sci-fi literature, visual arts, and music, connecting black history to the fantasy and future. Afrofuturism has often been intrinsically linked with real-time social and environmental issues. The artistic-literary movement, originating in the 1970s, has been instrumental in shaping black perceptions and political-cultural imaginaries. This movement is taking an interesting turn to tell the stories of artists in light of current climate change, waste pollution, and environmental justice crises that most African countries face.

Indeed, the integration of waste and materials into the afro-futuristic imaginaries is not an entirely novel process, gaining more presence with the afro-futuristic photo series turning waste into fashion couture in the urban environment of Dhakar in Senegal.

It is no wonder that I have noticed a strong interconnection between materials, waste, and art during my exploration of emerging visual artists from East Africa, especially during my visits to art studios and exhibitions in Nairobi. Artists such as Cyrus Kabiru, Evans Ngure, and Ngugi Waweru have been at the forefront of this movement, each offering unique insights into the materiality of modern art in Kenya. Their work has some twists inspired by and contributing to the Afro-futurism movement, with a strong focus on the waste problem of Nairobi and environmental justice. 

Waste and Urban Ecology

Waste and environmental justice are closely intertwined within the context of Nairobi. The city generates an estimated 2400-4000 tons of solid waste per day,  with 20% being plastic waste, alongside a rise in electronic and textile waste. However, not all generated waste is consumed and produced at home. Nairobi receives external waste from various Western countries, primarily electronic and textile waste, often labelled as second-hand appliance exports.

Moreover, the city is also home to more than 100 illegal dumpsites, where waste is managed by informal waste workers or just left to be landfilled. A spatial study conducted by Kenyatta University in 2018 revealed that most illegal dumpsites are situated in or around low-income settlements such as Kibera,  Dandora, and Sabaki. Residents of these settlements, predominantly low-income waste workers, work through the waste to salvage valuable materials like plastic, motherboards, batteries, and copper, while the remaining waste is either incinerated or left in the landfill.

Low-income waste workers engage in these waste dumpsites to sort and collect higher-value materials such as plastic, motherboards, batteries, and copper, and they burn or leave the rest in the landfill. Consequently, these marginalized communities bear the weight of the hazardous impacts of waste, facing health risks and social stigma as they are perceived as dirty, informal, and illegal.

Art and Climate Justice

Waste and environmental justice challenges are vividly manifested in the artworks of these artists. The visual elements serve as a tangible expression of their personal experiences with these crises, embodying a form of self-reflective artistic practice.

“I would like to give a waste a second chance,” says Cyrus Kabiru in his interviews. He grew up next to Dandora (the biggest dumpsite in Kenya) and was fascinated by the waste abundance and its lifecycle. His revolutionary work “C-stunners” is eyewear made out of electronic waste repurposed, reversed, and re-imagined.

Eyewear work creates a literal and metaphorical vision by utilizing found materials in the surroundings. He uses wire, bolts, spoons, and bottle parts to transcend the value and meaning of electronic waste through punk-futuristic aesthetics. Kabiru actively reflects on current consumerism patterns and waste through his visually striking eyewear and sculpture work. His sculptural creations predominantly feature animal figures and natural elements, emphasizing environmental and identity themes. The initial idea of utilizing discarded materials for Kabiru stemmed from his life experiences and limited access to artistic materials and resources.

Attending Ngugi Waweru‘s exhibition, “Mbinguni Kume Pasuka” (Heaven Has Broken), at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi left me with sharp impressions, mainly as the artist conveyed in his native Kikuyu language, a saying that translates to ‘A sharp knife cuts the owner.’ His pieces explicitly depict the repercussions of capitalist expansion, the toll of exploiting the earth and its resources, and the intimate connections between humans and materials. Ngugi skillfully creates his artworks using worn-out knives sourced from butchers and households, making them the central material of his work.

Far from being dull, these knives intensify the focus of the artwork, evoking a sense of sharpness that resonates with viewers through various configurations of worn-out blades. Additionally, Ngugi incorporates wood, steel, iron bars, and copper wire, drawing attention to materials extracted from the earth and the adverse effects of resource depletion on communal well-being and livelihoods. So, the artist creates almost a haunting and irreversible experience of over-extraction and overconsumption through the symbolic and materialistic use of worn-out knives in an afro-futuristic aesthetic.

Materiality is explored through the lens of culture, language, and meanings in the exhibition (Olidde Mupipa – which translates You have eaten from the dustbin) of Ugandan artist Xenson. His works present an explicit relation of materials to their contexts and take you to his playful world of sculptures of barrels/ bins that are usually repurposed and reused for other functions and material carriage after the main lifecycle. He masterfully depicts everyday functionality, such as charcoal burning and steel barrels, to reflect on these materials’ physicality and playfulness. Alongside a visual playful but also providing aesthetic, there is also an implicit sense of the life and social cycle of the materials that sculptures are built of – resources for production, labor, and everyday utility.

Another influential artist working in Nairobi’s waste sculpture domain is Evans Ngure. His work is on building diverse sculptures from different types of waste materials; through his work, he questions the conception and perception of waste, where he challenges waste as nothing but a source to build future art.

However, his kinetic work does not solely serve the purpose of beautification of waste and other materials. By collaging waste into his work, he also critically looks into the existence and reduction of waste in their environments.

All these artists translate their everyday reality intertwined with materials into their artwork, presenting futuristic aesthetics and critically provoking the presence and vicinity of waste and environmental degradation in Nairobi in their lives and many others’ lives. So, whether it is pre-conditioned or necessary creativity to bring in and center materials as a main figure of their work or an artistic choice to manifest and testament the imaginaries of their lives in East Africa that translates to Afro-futurism could be a tricky question.

Afro-futuristic Aesthetics

The wittiness and playfulness of bringing together critical, political, and personal subjects such as waste dumps, environmental pollution in their habitat, and over-extraction of resources in the African continent require a combination of both – creating a reflective art with aesthetics of futuristic imaginaries that assist and guide us through imagine beyond and above current harsh environmental injustices.

Moreover, these artists engage with a complex matter of waste, materials, and dirt (a matter out of place, as Douglas refers to in her famous work) without imposing moralistic values and beautification dogmas; in other words, these aesthetics give waste a voice without a purity gaze.

Indeed, materialistic Afro-futurism work neither gives us sociological artistic hope nor calls for the creation of ecological-idealistic pure nature. Their work takes us on a provoking journey to (re)think about what is natural in the current world and to reflect on our relationship with materials and waste in late-modern capitalistic urban environments. So, either the deliberate or unintentional adoption of materialistic Afro-futuristic aesthetics serves to (re)politicize the discourse surrounding waste and material usage through intimate storytelling.

Ilaha Abasli

Ilaha is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam). She holds a Master's degree in International Development and Emerging Economies from King's College London. She writes on climate change, material circularity, and its social aspects in the context of the Global South.

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