Why you should care
These curios weigh next to nothing and are virtually indestructible.
Wherever you go in sub-Saharan Africa, you can expect to be harangued by hawkers selling sculptures of elephants, giraffes, hippos and lions. There’s no doubting the skill of Africa’s wood carvers, but once you’ve seen one Big 5 sculpture, you’ve seen ’em all. Right?
Not so fast. Since 2006, Kenya-born Davis Ndungu has been making multicolored statues of everything from sharks to warthogs … out of recycled flip-flops. Featuring whorls, stripes and contours in every color of the rainbow, and a cartoonish charm, they’re quite unlike anything else. They’re also extremely lightweight and virtually unbreakable. “I sell 500 pieces a month,” he says proudly.
Ndungu started carving wood on the idyllic Kenyan spice island of Lamu when he was 14 years old. Lamu has a proud tradition of dhow building, but this youngster preferred to turn the leftovers into art. For the next 15 years or so, he honed his craft until in 2006 – inspired by a group of local women who made jewelry out of old flip-flops — he changed medium. Tourist demand for his new, funky creations gave him the confidence to relocate to Johannesburg in 2010 and again, three years later, to a coveted stall in Cape Town’s Watershed market.
A German client once paid $2,500 for a 6-foot giraffe that took seven weeks to complete.
For a long time, Ndungu was too embarrassed to tell people that he worked with old shoes, saying instead that he “did art.” Not that hygiene is an issue. The shoes — whose collection from dumpsters and beaches he outsources — have already been cleaned in a solution of bleach and vinegar when he buys them by the sackful. After selecting an eye-catching array of colors (“There’s always too much black”) and a suitable mix of quality (“Havaianas are the best to work with”), he cuts the curvy bits off the soles and glues and clamps the rectangular “tiles” into thick wads.
After sketching a basic outline on the rubber, he sets to work with his trusty steak knife. It takes him about an hour to sculpt a small elephant ($13) and another 20 to 30 minutes to smooth the rough edges with a power sander. “There are a few copycats in Kenya,” he says, “but their products don’t have the same finish.”
Small elephants and medium giraffes ($53) are the most popular, but he’s up for just about any challenge. A German client once paid $2,500 for a 6-foot giraffe that took seven weeks to complete and required wire inserts in its spindly legs. Ndungu has also dabbled in fine art pieces, and this year he’s planning to create more items with “utility value” (pen holders, vases and even kiddies’ furniture) to cater for the local market.
You may not meet the man himself at his 85-square-foot stall — he spends five days a week in his studio and only two on sales. But you’ll surely find something that catches your eye in the inventory of 350 items, which includes everything from penguins and African masks to utilitarian key rings and tortoise-shaped doorstops.
“They make great bath toys,” Ndungu says of his creations. And teethers, I bet.
GET SOME: FLIP-FLOP SCULPTURES
- Walk-in: Ndungu’s stall at the Watershed, in Cape Town’s popular waterfront precinct, is open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Online: The online shop carries a small range of popular products and ships globally.
- Commission: If it can be made out of old flip-flops, Ndungu will do it. Call (or send him a WhatsApp message) on +27 (0)84 657 3309.
- DIY: There’s nothing stopping you from giving it a go. Simply grab some old flops, a pot of glue and a sharpish knife and go wild.