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.
ART IN THE MAKING
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.
‘EVERY PIECE IS UNIQUE AND VERY CLOSE TO MY HEART’
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.
HIS INTEREST IN SCULPTURE
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.”
REDUCING GLOBAL POLLUTION
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.