KAJIADO, Kenya: Two life-size lions crafted from scrap metal guard the entrance to the studio of Kenyan metal sculptor Kioko Mwitiki. Nearby a leopard, with holes in its metal body to mimic spots, crouches next to a giant elephant sculpture.
Mwitiki, 56, estimates that for over three decades he has sculpted thousands of tons of discarded metal – from supermarket trolley wheels to shredded metal from factories – into art.
Customers for his artifacts, which can fetch up to $10,000 each, have included former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Danish royal family, Washington’s Smithsonian museum and the San Diego Zoo.
Mwitiki says his work is particularly relevant today due to global concerns about over-consumption, pollution and climate change.
"Recycling has become a very important issue, because you just need to be in sync with what is happening," he told Reuters in his studio, where apprentices noisily beat twisted metal. “All this plastic in the air, all this plastic in the ocean.”
Sometimes his choice of material helps to draw attention to wildlife conservation, an issue close to his heart.
For his lion sculptures, he transforms animal snares, used by illegal hunters in national parks and given to him by the Kenya Wildlife Service, into dramatic manes.
Mwitiki became an artist by accident. His older sister sent him to be an apprentice in a welder's shop as punishment after he was expelled from university in 1986 for joining anti-government protests on campus.
In his spare time, he fashioned a few artistic objects from metal. He later found them displayed at a Nairobi gallery after a broker bought them cheaply from him and sold them on. This led him to realize he could support himself as an artist.
Mwitiki's childhood memories – and concerns about growing conflict between humans and animals in his country – inspired him to sculpt wildlife.
He grew up south of Nairobi in the Rift Valley, where large herds of wildebeest once roamed the plains. "We literally had to go through a herd of wildebeest to get to school so these are things you can never forget."
Those migration routes have largely disappeared due to human encroachment on animal habitats.
Mwitiki has trained younger artists, including two men from Malawi, who returned home to start similar recycling programs.
"We must teach the younger people to understand the importance of recycling," he said, “because the resources that we have are in danger of being polluted.”