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Making a Living—and Art—Out of Trash

By Alyssa Coppelman

It’s impossible for the eye not to be drawn to Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali, a dazzling series that adorns photographic portraits with computer parts and other scavenged objects. The Brooklyn-based artist pays tribute with this work to the innovative, informal, and massive jua kali workforce of his native Kenya. The work is on view through March 26 at United Photo Industries in Brooklyn.

Jua kali earn their livelihood by creating something new from things others have discarded. They scavenge local dumps for materials then sell their work. They were named jua kali—Swahili for “fierce sun”—because they labor under the hot, equatorial sun. In 2014, 11.8 million people were in the informal labor sector in Kenya—almost 80% of all of the country’s workers. 

One image from Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series, which combines photo portraits with found junk and celebrates the massive informal labor force in Kenya.
One image from Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series, which combines photo portraits with found junk and celebrates the massive informal labor force in Kenya.
One image from Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series, which combines photo portraits with found junk and celebrates the massive informal labor force in Kenya.

While at the Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts, Karmali photographed the artists, dancers, businessmen, and other people around him, some of whom had spent time as jua kali. He also photographed materials he gathered from the same dumps the jua kali workers mine, blending 30 to 100 pieces in each composited image. He employed repetition and pattern in a way that characterizes contemporary East African art. “I would look for things that symbolize what is going on in Kenya,” Karmali explains, “objects that represent the mechanics of our current economy: motherboards show Nairobi as a growing technological hub in Africa, and recycled car and bicycle parts sort of imply movement and mechanical systems.”

While some objects in the final images relate to the person portrayed, he has refrained from identifying those objects, preferring to leave the connections to the viewers’ imagination.

Karmali shared some details about his process: “Within Adobe Photoshop I am a big advocate for blending modes, curve and level smart layers, and the sharpening tools. I have to focus more on the print because that's how I make money. Photoshop allows me to perfect the print and allows me to govern the outcome according to the paper used. Because Jua Kali was created while on the go and not in the best conditions, sharpening and curves are very useful to adjust the light and create new lighting directions. My printer works with Photoshop as well so we have a common language when there are issues with the print.”

One image from Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series, which combines photo portraits with found junk and celebrates the massive informal labor force in Kenya.
One image from Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series, which combines photo portraits with found junk and celebrates the massive informal labor force in Kenya.

Karmali says that the meaning of jua kali means has changed over the years. He is “trying to redefine what Jua Kali means and what we associate it with. I am trying to describe Kenya and, moreover, Africa as a place of innovation and imagination.” Karmali says that Africa is changing faster than the outsider’s perception of it is, but that “Jua Kali is less about how others see us, it’s about how we should see ourselves—it's about how we should define ourselves for ourselves.”

Watch a video about to Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series.

Click the image to watch a video about an installation that included Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali series.