Monday, April 11, 2011



Chequered, multicolored hot air balloons of different dimensions dangle from the ceiling in a corner in an installation. Nearby, psychedelic and diaphanous cigarette lighters are framed in a luminous mosaic on a wall. A chaise lounge suggesting that it could have been a canoe once sits inviting in the centre of the room resplendent with orange upholstery. And wooden guitars in myriad shapes – heart, fish, star, and even angel’s wings – adorn the gallery walls and beckon to be picked and strummed, though they are obviously only ornamental. Amidst the beauty, flip-flops litter the floor in a not-so-gentle reminder of waste carelessly strewn across urban land or washed ashore by polluted waters of seas and oceans. I am at RaMoMA art gallery in Nairobi browsing avant garde furniture and decorative props created by Andrew McNaughton at an exhibition mysteriously titled “Clear Obsidian”.

Beach artist Andrew MacNaughton

Obsidian is a black rock formed of volcanic magma; this I knew having picked up a few as souvenirs on my trek through the gorges of Hell’s Gate National Park. But clear obsidian doesn't make much sense, only that it is a contradiction in terms. It occurs to me that the stark contrast between flip-flops and funky art is a deliberate ploy and the significance of the title starts dawning on me somewhat. Being a wordsmith, I have to unravel this conundrum before I get down to a chat with the artist. I was impressed by some of Andrew’s handiwork seen earlier and had wanted to meet the artist ever since. Finally, here was my opportunity. Andrew concurs that there is nothing like clear obsidian and that the paradox is a ruse, an interesting way of questioning established ideas, of stretching the imagination to think out of the box. This self-styled “beach artist” has been doing just that for years now.

Lighters all!
Andrew practiced as a commercial Interior Design Consultant and furniture developer first in UK, and then in Nairobi for 30 years, before he shifted gears and started sculpting pieces of fine art for interiors. He reveals that all his assemblages are created from marine debris – defunct canoes, dhows, driftwood, flip-flops and other taka taka (Swahili for wastes) that litter the beaches of Watamu, a coastal hamlet in Kenya. Being a naturalist-at-heart, it was here, in his adopted home, that the idea of using non-biodegradable wastes as raw material first struck home. He, thus, started living the “pleasure of creating something out of nothing” while dedicating himself to environmental housekeeping of his neighbourhood. Andrew’s art work uses 95% recycled or sustainable material.

Having settled by the Indian ocean, the Anish-Kapoor afficionado got into the habit of combing the beaches and recalls being astounded by the paraphernalia of beach litter that he could source from. Andrew actually pays to collect marine debris, and people from the neighbourhood bring all kind of trash to his door. There is, of course, the unending supply of Hawai chappals, but apart from that, he finds cigarette lighters, polythene bags, plastic and glass bottles, metal scrap, drift wood and other unimaginable rubbish. He assigns his gardener the duty of cleaning flip-flops thoroughly, sorting them out, and piling them, a task that “never ends”! Andrew's beach-front workshop hires local people and his entire team of craftsmen - joiners and finishers – comes from the local community. Andrew's efforts are channelized through Watamu Marine Association and he is, perhaps, the only individual competing with institutions and the hospitality industry in cleaning the beaches of Watamu. Andrew's workshop also serves the dual purpose of providing employment and boosting local economy.

The artist is a man of many parts and his art is a reflection of his multifaceted personality.  A passionate musician and guitarist, his love for music has translated in guitars being a recurring theme in this collection. The 22 guitars serve as a fantastic showcase for his creative process as it not only uses diverse material – casuarina roots, kapok wood, sand, wooden logs, aluminum wires, flip-flop squares, but also different techniques. Having worked as a commercial furniture developer he has his finger on the pulse of his audience or buyers, as the case may be, and he comes up with saleable propositions. His stools, settees and lamps; and rugs made by simply piecing together flip-flop diamonds are functional, but even his purely decorative pieces are commercially viable.

'Art for peace' is an oft-bludgeoned theme used by artists to garner attention to their work in an ever-competitive world. It may or may not have merit and may or may not bring change of heart, but Andrew’s 'Art for Environment' is action-oriented and sets practical example for waste recycling. And it also stands out for the sheer beauty of his artistry.


  1. very interesting--thanks for this photo essay!

  2. I have always maintained that virtually all our art, culture, music, song, dance, philosophies, religions and even our strategies of survival were inspired by nature. Those who are aware of this very simple, but often hidden, truth are blessed because they are getting the most from the gift of life.