This Kenya-born artist is turn­ing flip-flops into sculp­tures and he has his eye on mak­ing fur­ni­ture from them too


Turn­ing flipflops into sculp­tures

EACH an­i­mal is a dis­tinc­tive rain­bow of shades. At a glance, the colourful col­lec­tion of beasts ap­pears to be made of play dough or plas­tic but on closer in­spec­tion their hides are re­vealed to be a fa­mil­iar rub­bery tex­ture.

Artist Davis Ndungu’s cre­ations feel a lot like a flip-flop – be­cause that’s ex­actly what they are made of: dis­carded san­dals.

He re­cy­cles around 7 000 flipflops in a year to cre­ate about 2 000 sculp­tures.

Davis (42) has been re­cy­cling old beach san­dals and turn­ing them in to sculp­tures rang­ing from gi­raffes to warthogs and rhi­nos for the past 10 years. He’s now ex­per­i­ment­ing with mak­ing fur­ni­ture from them, for sale on his web­site and at the bustling Wa­ter­shed at the V&A Wa­ter­front in Cape Town.


His pieces are all hand­made “and ev­ery piece is unique and very close to my heart”, he says.

The Kenya-born artist says the vast amount of plas­tic pol­lu­tion in the ocean in­spired him to recycle the deadly pol­lu­tants into some­thing use­ful and beau­ti­ful.

Ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from the United Na­tions, by 2050, there will be more plas­tic in the ocean than fish, with some 12 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic en­ter­ing our oceans ev­ery year – that’s equiv­a­lent to a dump truck-full ev­ery minute.

Davis has been do­ing his bit to save the en­vi­ron­ment, yet for a long time he was em­bar­rassed to tell peo­ple he had given up work­ing with wood and was cre­at­ing art with old san­dals.

It’s a painstak­ing process: the used flip-flops are first cleaned in a so­lu­tion of vine­gar and bleach and the curved front sec­tions are cut off and glued to­gether to form a colourful block. Davis sketches an out­line on the rub­ber and sets to work sculpt­ing an­i­mals out of it. A small ele­phant takes about 90 min­utes to take shape be­fore it is smoothed with a san­der.


In his shop, the small­est items are key rings, which cost about R100 and the big­gest is a 30cm-tall gi­raffe, which costs R750. The gi­raffes are his best-sellers. Each one re­quires about five flip-flops to cre­ate and he once crafted a 2-me­tre-tall gi­raffe on com­mis­sion for a Ger­man client at a cost of R37 500. That took seven weeks to com­plete, he re­calls.


Davis took an in­ter­est in sculp­ture as a boy liv­ing on the is­land of Lamu, Kenya. The is­land is known for its his­tory of dhow (trad­ing boat) build­ing and he would use the left­over bits of wood to cre­ate toys, and later, sculp­tures. “Toys were lux­u­ries we couldn’t af­ford so we had to make them,” he says. “I guess the less you have the more cre­ative you be­come. We used any­thing we could find – tin, clay, wood – to make toys. My first one was a car, a VW Bee­tle, I made when I was six. I had no for­mal train­ing,” he says.

Davis couldn’t af­ford to at­tend high school. “I knew from early on I needed to be good with my hands to make a liv­ing”. Of course, if you want to pur­sue a pas­sion you will go far if you have a busi­ness di­men­sion to it,” he adds.

He switched from wood to flip-flops in about 2009, sell­ing his cre­ations to tourists. “You choose a cer­tain medium just to be unique and earn a liv­ing. Peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ated the medium and I thought it’s some­thing I should do.”

The grow­ing de­mand for his colourful de­signs saw him re­lo­cate to Jo­han­nes­burg in 2010, then Cape Town in 2013. Davis set up a small stu­dio in the Mother City where he em­ploys four artists and a sales­per­son. “I have guys from Nyanga that I work with. I trained them and haven’t looked back since.”

He also plans to start teach­ing dis­ad­van­taged youth to make sim­ple pieces of sculp­ture for which they will be paid a com­mis­sion.

His art and his work are his life, he tells us. “Be­ing an artist is a full-time job. You need com­mit­ment and de­ter­mi­na­tion. It’s not some­thing you switch on and off. You must be ob­ses­sive. If I’m not sculpt­ing, I’m wait­ing to sculpt. I also have the busi­ness side to take care of,” he says. Set­ting up shop at the Wa­ter­front, one of Mzansi’s top tourist des­ti­na­tions, has been very good for busi­ness. Lo­cals, tourists and celebri­ties, in­clud­ing US singer Mi­ley Cyrus who popped into his shop last year, have been drawn to his eye-catch­ing an­i­mals. “I was good at what I was do­ing but I was not known,” Davis re­flects. “Be­ing at the right place is very im­por­tant. Once I got the right lo­ca­tion, I knew the sky is the limit.”


The artist knows his con­tri­bu­tion to re­duc­ing global pol­lu­tion may be a drop in the ocean, but he takes com­fort know­ing the thou­sands of san­dals that pass through his hands, and those of his team are re­pur­posed.

Back home, pol­lu­tion is taken so se­ri­ously that in 2017 Kenya in­tro­duced the world’s tough­est laws on plas­tic bag pol­lu­tion – jail time of up to four years or fines of up to R586 000 for Kenyans pro­duc­ing, sell­ing or us­ing plas­tic bags.

Many plas­tic bags end up in the ocean. And ac­cord­ing to Kenyabased en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion group Ocean Sole Africa, 90 tonnes of dis­carded flip-flops land on the coasts of East African beaches alone.

For his part, Davis en­cour­ages the pub­lic to do­nate their used flip-flops. “I get peo­ple to bring me their old flip-flops which they would oth­er­wise dump in the bin. Most peo­ple are just ex­cited I can re­use them. Peo­ple want to help where they can,” he says.

He has part­nered with cloth­ing stores, in­clud­ing Mr Price and PEP Stores, which to­gether do­nated around 7 000 flip-flops to him. “I’m su­per ex­cited about my col­lab­o­ra­tion with Hava­ianas, the Brazil­ian flip-flop com­pany. I will make Brazil­ian an­i­mals.”

Davis is also mak­ing fur­ni­ture out of flip-flops be­cause he strives to al­ways do some­thing new. “My pas­sion is in ideas. We are con­tin­u­ously ex­per­i­ment­ing un­til we get it right. Right now, we are try­ing some mats and jew­ellery.”

Mak­ing an hon­est liv­ing is a point of pride for the artist and en­tre­pre­neur. “Some­times when I go the mall peo­ple ask me,‘ Why are your hands dirty?’ I say to them, ‘It’s be­cause my money is clean, it has been worked for’.”

ABOVE and ABOVE LEFT: Davis Ndungu has turned thou­sands of un­wanted flipflops into colourful art­works. LEFT: The Kenya-born artist learnt to sculpt as a child when he made toys out of wood, tin and clay.

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