Junk or treasure: Art from recycled materials

Farah Montasser, Thursday 21 Feb 2013

Ahram Online explores 'Recycled Puppets and Masks' workshop at Cairo's Darb 1718 and looks into the value of 'Junk Art' as a contemporary approach to art

recycled art
Recycled Puppets (Photo: Darb 1718)

Darb 1718, the contemporary arts and culture centre located in Old Cairo, has been offering 'Recycled Puppets and Masks' workshops led by American artist Jenna Crowder.

The art-making workshop is scheduled to run until 3 March.

The centre has prioritised artistic workshops on its February-March agenda, aiming at widening the value of artistic creativity and its effects on the public.

Reaching its fourth session, crowds gather around the seven young women workshop participants; all eager to create something out of the pile of newspapers, cardboards, colourful threads, plastic plates, paper cups, and glue jars.

Jenna Crowder
Jenna Crowder

Sylvia Taher, a freelance photographer, has decided to create one large elephant puppet. The remaining six agreed to join her and have it their joint-workshop project instead of each individually working on a single puppet. "That's what I love about this workshop… it is an eye opener and extends your ability and creativity levels," Taher tells Ahram Online.

"I believe that recycled materials or as artists call it 'junk' can be used to create art," Taher added.

Joining Artellewa's, contemporary arts centre in Cairo, residency programme by its founder Hamdy Reda, Jenna Crowder has resided in Cairo a year ago and ever since she has been passionate about creating arts in public spaces. "It is a dream of mine to conquer public places across Cairo with arts. I aim at engaging with the community's own artistic vision," Crowder tells Ahram Online.

Jenna Crowder holds a BFA in Sculpture and Art History with a focus in civic engagement and public art from the Maine College of Art. According to her written biography, she is currently researching the roles of art, design, and visual culture as reflections of the public, as tools for participation and engagement, and as methods for creating more positive experiences in everyday life.

"Art is a free expression and it reaches its best when locals of the community exchange their visions, creating a dialogue with the artistic conceptions and this workshop is about that," Crowder reckons. "Art and design should be public… they should represent the public, be informed by the public, and speak to the public. They should be approachable, accessible, and provocative," she trusts.

The 'Recycled Puppets and Masks' workshop at Darb 1718 does not have an agenda or an educational syllabus, but it invites its participants to use their imagination to the maximum. "I want participants to visualise the material they have in front of them and transform their imagination into reality," Crowder explains.

In four sessions since the workshop opened on 6 February, those seven young amateurs try to put the environment surrounding them to its best use. At their weekly session, on 20 February, one participant held a plastic plate in front of her face for a few seconds imagining how her recycled mask will look like at the end.

Taher, on the other hand, presented her medium-sized cat sculpture made out of cardboard and bottle caps. "I look at things differently now even at home and wonder what to make out of it," Taher says.

Sylvia Taher's cat

'Junk Art' or 'Sustainable Art' has been associated over the course of modern art history to 'Environmental Art' or 'Green Art,' as explained in John Beardsley's book entitled Earthworks and Beyond back in 1998. Such terms used in contemporary art, all carry the same meaning and aim at delivering a sense of reality; in other words, artists connect their art with the environment around them and adhering it to the public in an eco-friendly manner.

Jenna Crowder
Jenna Crowder with the 'Recycled Puppets and Masks' workshop team

Regardless of the term identified in contemporary art history books, examples of famous artists engaging in their own environment have varied over the 20th Century. The Economist recalls some famous artists, including Picasso and Joan Miro who have used 'junk,' according to the magazine issue of April 1998, into their work.

According to the issue, Picasso created a vigorous image of a bull's head back in 1943 by placing a bicycle's handles above a saddle. Even prior to Picasso, Joan Miro crafted his 'Object' of 1936 out of "a stuffed silk stocking with velvet garter and doll's paper shoe, suspended in a hollow wood frame." The junk-transfigured art of Picasso and Miro, as described by The Economist, puts an element of surprise and humour.

Another major feature of 'Junk Art' is that it is affordable to artists and is characterised as avant-garde and ecological at the same time, reaching the crème-de-la-crème of society and the average human being.

"Anyone can use anything and produce art," Crowder clarifies with a smile.

Crowder believes that 'Junk Art' is enlightening. "My first attempts with recycled materials started in 2005 during my collage years in Washington," she recalls. "I needed frames for my painting but could not afford them so I used plastic bottles, tins, and leftover pieces of wood and transformed them into golden frames."

Recycling goods is a common behaviour in USA, which made it easy for Crowder to integrate it into her art and design projects. However, in Egypt, "You have to find used stuff but luckily we manage," she tells Ahram Online. "But we often pay local shops and street vendors to buy their plastic waste and used paper and cardboards," Taher comments.
Normally, 'Junk Art' is more related to sculptors and is often assimilated into large paintings, but Crowder insisted on creating a puppet and mask workshop at Darb 1718. "I had experienced back in the States such endeavours by some of my colleagues and they were lots of fun," she explains. "They are like the writer's creativity sessions," Taher interrupts.

"Yes, they are more inviting to participants and by masks and puppets, participants even get to create a story or write a play at the end of the workshop," Crowder claims. "I would like, when this workshop comes to an end, to have a puppet show to present to the public at Darb 1718, but this is still to be decided," she says.

'Junk Art' could be more subjective than all other art schools; some may find 'Junk Art' enjoyable, while others may despise it. Nevertheless, it is illuminating, as the workshop team agrees, for their creativity levels have not only reached assembling different materials to create an object, but also imagining and writing a story to characterise it. Basically, their junk-transformed elephant will come to life!

'Recycled Puppets and Masks' workshop continues at Darb 1718 until 3 March, when participants will, according to the plan, showcase their giant puppet elephant to the public at the Darb 1718 courtyard and tell a story or perform a play. The workshop team is still brainstorming.

Short link: