Much of the trash that we “throw away” or “recycle” is actually shipped overseas, often to poorer countries. E-waste, clothing, recyclable plastics, and food packaging are among the items that end up in places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, where locals are often paid extremely low wages to sort through it for salvageable materials. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, local artists sick of the massive trash piles sent by the US and Europe have started turning them into surreal costumes, as captured in a new book called Homo Détritus by photographer and reporter Stéphan Gladieu.
The countercultural art movement began with a group of students at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kinshasa, who decided to make art from what they could find around them. Most of what they found was the waste of faraway strangers: tires, foam, bottles, paint cans, CDs, flip-flops, exhaust pipes, and more. In 2015, the artists founded the collective Ndaku Ya Life is Beautiful, led by Eddy Ekete, and began performing while wearing their startlingly creative costumes.
Each costume echoes the ancestral clothing arts of the Congolese, and each has its own story to tell. Jared Kalenga’s “Robot Annonce” is a suit made of broken radio parts in a warning against the spread of fake news. “Femme Électrique” is a costume made of electrical wiring by Falonne Mambu, symbolizing the Congo’s inconsistent electrical service and the kidnappings and sexual assaults that occur when the lights go out.
“Tin Can” by Mvunzi Muteba Jr. aims to raise awareness among Africans about how the presence of multinational companies (such as those mining for rare minerals) has affected the continent and kept its citizens poor despite its many riches. “Tire Man” by Savant Noir is a protest of those stolen resources, like the rubber used to manufacture tires. Other issues represented by the costumes and performances include gang violence, viruses, pollution, a lack of safe drinking water, and the Western-style consumerism that’s beginning to creep into the country.
Gladieu’s photos capture these costumes against relevant backdrops, including graffitied concrete walls, industrial sites, gutters full of trash, and public street markets with locals looking on. In publishing the book, he hopes the levity and creativity of the images will catch the attention of Westerners who don’t want to be guilted into caring about where their waste ends up. His approach celebrates the Congolese culture and the resilience of the community of Kinshasa, sharing the ways in which the artists have reclaimed their experiences and translated them into something beautiful.
“(In the photographs), we are talking about ecology, but we are talking about ecology through African masks,” says Gladieu. “As you can see, they’re completely covered up. You don’t see any part of the skin. The traditional masks were done with natural materials. They symbolized the spirit of the ancestors or the spirit of support of the natural world. These young artists reinvent these traditional masks in a way, but they do it today with trash because they find more trash and natural materials.”
Published by Actes Sud, Homo Détritus was released in hardcover in November 2022 and is now available for backorder from Bookshop.org. You can see more of these images at Gladieu’s website, and on Instagram.