Kenyan sculptor turns scrap metal into art with a message

Metal sculptor Kioko Mwitiki (left), whose artwork has been sold to former United States president Bill Clinton and the Danish royal family, and his student Kelvin Muia (far left) working on a metal sculpture at his art studio in Kenya.
Metal sculptor Kioko Mwitiki (left), whose artwork has been sold to former United States president Bill Clinton and the Danish royal family, and his student Kelvin Muia (far left) working on a metal sculpture at his art studio in Kenya.PHOTO: REUTERS

KAJIADO (Kenya) • Two life-size lions crafted from scrap metal guard the entrance to the studio of Kenyan metal sculptor Kioko Mwitiki.

Nearby, a leopard, with holes in its metal body to mimic spots, crouches next to a giant elephant sculpture.

Mwitiki, 56, estimates that he has sculpted thousands of tonnes of discarded metal - from supermarket trolley wheels to shredded metal from factories - into art over three decades.

Customers for his artefacts, which can fetch up to US$10,000 (S$13,850) each, have included former United States president Bill Clinton, the Danish royal family, The Smithsonian museum in Washington and the San Diego Zoo.

Mwitiki says his work is particularly relevant today due to global concerns about over-consumption, pollution and climate change.

"Recycling has become a very important issue because you just need to be in sync with what is happening; all this plastic in the air, all this plastic in the ocean," he said.

Sometimes his choice of material helps to draw attention to wildlife conservation, an issue close to his heart.

For his lion sculptures, he transforms animal snares, used by illegal hunters in national parks and given to him by the Kenya Wildlife Service, into dramatic manes.

Mwitiki became an artist by accident.

His elder sister sent him to be an apprentice in a welder's shop as punishment after he was expelled from university in 1986 for joining anti-government protests on campus.

In his spare time, he fashioned a few artistic objects from metal. He later found them displayed at a Nairobi gallery after a broker bought them cheaply from him and sold them.

This led him to realise he could support himself as an artist.

Mwitiki's childhood memories - and concerns about growing conflict between humans and animals in his country - inspired him to sculpt wildlife.

He grew up south of Nairobi in the Rift Valley, where large herds of wildebeest once roamed the plains.

"We literally had to go through a herd of wildebeest to get to school, so these are things you can never forget, " he said.

Those migration routes have largely disappeared due to human encroachment on animal habitats.

Mwitiki has trained younger artists, including two men from Malawi, who returned home to start similar recycling programmes.

"We must teach the younger people to understand the importance of recycling because the resources that we have are in danger of being polluted," he said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2020, with the headline 'Kenyan sculptor turns scrap metal into art with a message'. Print Edition | Subscribe