This month we’re talking about plastic as part of the Plastic Free July campaign.
Fighting the rising tide of plastic pollution in the ocean is going to take many heads and many hands working together to find a sustainable solution. We all need to reduce our use of single-use plastics at home and at work; effective management of the solid waste stream for all citizens should be among governments’ top priorities; retailers need to offer affordable alternatives; and product packaging needs radical redesign based on circular economy principles.
But we would also serve the cause if we took the time to reflect on our relationship with single-use plastic, and on what our culture of consumption and disposal has created. In working towards generating awareness among our staff and visitors, it has emerged that all paths towards a better planet start in the same place: with care.
Several artists and activists around the world are trying to make people care about the crisis of marine pollution. By collecting discarded plastics and turning it into beautiful and thought-provoking works of art, these artists are providing us with a second chance to engage with, to regard with new eyes, and to care about the life of plastic after we throw it away.
These sculptures, visual pieces and photographs we are about to show you serve to reveal the true “nature” of the afterlife of our commodities, making visible and demanding a reckoning with that which we have been blind to. They embody the impact that humans have had on the web of life, and how inextricably linked all living and non-living beings actually are.
Mbongeni Buthelezi, an artist from Johannesburg, South Africa, paints with plastic by melting found items. His latest solo collection, called Sugar Tax, is a double critique: of the material realities of waste, and of the social and health debates around the taxing of sugary drinks in South Africa and around the world.
“My history – my background – is in watercolour, so when I moved into plastics, I started the experiment with recycled materials,” Mbongeni told Channel24. “As I worked, these discarded logos and brands came up over and over again, and I eventually realised that, in most cases, I found them beautiful – the vibrant colours on these fizzy drinks. As things changed, I realised that I needed to come up with some sort of dialogue in terms of the whole sugar tax argument. Aside from that, it’s fascinating for me as an artist to look at this beautiful material that is being used as packaging.”
Senegalese photographer Fabrice Monteiro's commentary on pollution in his series The Prophecy takes the familiar genre of fashion photography, and the West African jinn (an ancient supernatural genie), and turns both concepts on their heads. His photographs depict the jinn dressed, high-fashion style, in elaborate dresses made of trash.
Fabrice told The Mantle magazine that art of this kind offers “a different perspective” that “creates a relation in people’s thinking”. These haunting images provide strong commentary on the intersection of humanity and the natural world, and Fabrice says he wanted to create something for the Senegalese audience that they could relate to. “West Africa believes in spirits. The idea was to use those spirits to deliver a message.”
Cape Town artist Gwendolyn Meyer’s photographs of found items are striking and open-ended. Rather than making an overt statement, these pieces force us to be still, and to look at the changing world anew.
“In early 2016, the prevailing southeaster wind on the False Bay coast in Cape Town, South Africa, caused some significant ocean upwelling events," says Gwendolyn. "A large amount of plastic was brought onshore, tangled in the seaweed's long strands. Within the plastic detritus were strange, not totally natural oceanic objects. On the beach that summer was evidence that plastic waste in the ocean is is undergoing an integrative evolution, becoming bound with natural forms by the ocean's forces. Ocean life forms have evolved and developed in response to the currents, the ebb and flows and the movement of water. These same forces clearly are reconfiguring nature and plastic into hybrid objects as a third form.”
Alejandro Durán’s Washed Up is an installation project that draws on the bold colours of washed-up plastic on Mexico’s Caribbean coast to create something beautiful, and disquieting. At times, Alejandro spreads the objects the way the waves would; at other times, the plastic mimics algae, roots, rivers, or fruit, reflecting the infiltration of plastics into the natural environment.
For Alejandro, this series depicts “a new form of colonisation by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our culture of disposable products.” By raising awareness in this way, the artist is trying to change the viewer’s relationship to consumption and waste. “It is truly absurd that a plastic water bottle can be used to quench your thirst for a few minutes and then last for years, decades, even centuries, while destroying ecosystems and endangering life on our planet,” Alejandro told National Geographic. “I believe that the first step in creating change is education. Now we need to move on to action.”
Christine Ren and Jose G Cano
Christine Ren has put her weight behind raising awareness about the impact of ghost nets (discarded fishing gear lost at sea), and how economic incentives like buy-back programmes can help remove these Silent Killers from the ocean.
A dancer and ocean conservationist, Christine uses bodies and movement as a human canvas for this issue, in arresting images captured by photographer Jose G Cano.
By reframing the crisis of discarded fishing gear in this way, the artist is asking us to care in one of the most primary ways: through empathy.
Umbeco Design, based in Durban, South Africa, made an array of fantasy sea creatures for SPAR’s festive season campaign at uShaka Marine World in December 2016. Using cooldrink and milk bottles, mesh and reclaimed bottletops, the design team created pretty, playful reminders of the fact that what we throw away has to go somewhere – whether that be landfill or ocean.
“We are playing to the paradox that the fish are made completely from recycled and found materials, using the very objects which play a role in destroying our marine biodiversity to send out a message of the importance of recycling and reusing,” said Umcebo’s Robin Opperman.
Some of Umbeco’s creations can now be seen at the Aquarium’s rooftop vegetable garden, where the fish have added wonderful colour to the space. We also use the sea star made from bottletops on our educational outreach trips.
Gilles Cenazandotti is a French sculptor who uses marine plastic to create life-size sculptures of endangered animals. This polar bear is not only beautiful, but in its stark whiteness is a chilling reminder of the future we are creating.
Gilles's work imagines a dystopian future where animals have evolved and mutated to become one with their trash-strewn environment.
Tess Felix, from the USA, creates portraits out of plastic debris that show a human soul. Her Ocean Eco Heroes series pays homage to people who are champions of the environment. "Even though they are encased in beach trash," says Tess, "a serious purpose still shines through their eyes."
“These figures are a playful response to a serious issue: the perilous state of the ocean and our marine life. While I admire activists and leaders who address the problem, my own voice is that of an artist. The contrast between the humanity of the figures and the plastic materials they are made of suggests that we are part of and responsible for the problem we have created.”
On his Instagram profile, photographer Fernando Badiali - who is based in Kalk Bay on the Cape Peninsula - says that he is "currently following trash around South Africa." His profile features poignant images of matter out of place; cooldrink cans, styrofoam cups and the like floating on water. The images seem to exist outside of time and space, and yet are so recognisable as to feel very close to home.
"I spend so much time shooting South Africa's beaches and harbour areas and I'm often standing in trash while shooting a beautiful scene," Fernando told us. "This is my autodidactic journey into my own trash generation."
Cause for hope
We all feel the eco-fatigue from time to time; it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted by the ongoing, devastating and every-day ecological disaster of plastic pollution. But in the presence of resuscitated imaginations, we may glimpse an opportunity to resurrect the power of hope and optimism. What do you think and feel when looking at these images?