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African Reinventions: Reused Materials In Popular Culture

The organizing idea of IU's Fall 2010 College of Arts and Sciences Themester is sustain.ability: Thriving on a Small Planet. For the occasion, the university's art museum is hosting an exhibition of objects and images from across the African continent that meets the idea of sustainability head-on.

A Marriage Of Art And Resourcefulness

African Reinventions: Reused Materials in Popular Culture presents strictly defined art objects-such as jewelry, sculpture and painting-fashioned from discarded materials. The exhibition demonstrates how artistry, in combination with resourcefulness, can bring new life to utilitarian objects.

An oil lamp from Ghana showcases an economy of means, while providing a visual double-entendre: The maker has taken a burned-out incandescent light bulb, replaced its filament with a cotton wick, sat it up on its fat end on a bit of recycled tin, and added a handle. Voilà ! Old-fashioned technology meets contemporary materials for a winsome antidote to darkness in the absence of a fresh light bulb-or, quite possibly, electricity.

The Half-Life Of Consumerism

"In most parts of Africa, using whatever you have is just a way of life," explains Diane Pelrine, Class of 1949 Curator for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "There aren't as many resources; people don't have as much money to acquire things. They use up what they have, rather than of pitching it out. When something becomes a little worn, they'll figure out a different way to reuse it, or repair it."

The backsides of flour sacks become canvases for a hand-painted movie poster. A one-liter Coke bottle wrapped in papier maché forms the fuselage of a child's toy airplane. A working boom box is cobbled together from abandoned wire and circuitry. A cap is sewn from the scraps of Kente cloth left on the tailor's floor. Jewelry and tchotchkes shimmer with the leavings of mass-produced consumer culture: a Fanta bottle cap, a plastic swing tag, and a rainbow striped chunk of flip-flop.

A Gateway Exhibition

Along with the environmental and sociological commentary it provides, African Reinventions serves as the gateway to a world of visual art that might otherwise seem exotic.

"These objects are clearly so appealing on many levels," Pelrine notes. "A lot of African art is made for more serious things, for specific spiritual practices. These were made for fun, but some of the same techniques used in the more serious objects, you can see here."

And what better way to learn about big ideas-like sustainability, or African art-than to think you're just having fun?

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