A cluster of artwork using plastic bits and pieces from speakers, circuit boards, and more, on the abstract oil paint based images of people’s faces. These pieces hook in and provide a strong message to lookers on, and were created using trash from the Agbogbroshi district in Ghana. The artist, Mago Nagasaka, began mass creating these pieces with trash gathered from said district to bring to the world.
The Agbogbroshi district is a slum near the center of Accra, the capital of Ghana. Electronic refuse from all over the world is gathered here, and it is known as the world’s largest electronic graveyard. It is approximately 1.5 kilometers squared in size. It is said that the amount of trashed packed into this space, which is the size of over 30 dome baseball fields, weighs in at approximately 50,000 tons. Thousands pour sweat in this wasteland filled with toxic gas from the burning of the electronic waste as they support themselves by working to remove the leftover rare metals, bronze, and ceramic parts. This wasteland is bordered by the area in which they live, and children and livestock can be seen traipsing through the waste.
Nagasaka first visited this place in 2017, when he was sightseeing, and felt the negative effects of the lives lived in advanced nations. As he came to know the locals who would work twelve hour days in brutal work environments for a meager five dollars in pay, he began to feel a strong need to change their brutal reality, and started painting pictures based on the region.
“The trash I use is mostly plastic scraps that the workers in the area can't make money with. I use the trash among the trash so as not to interfere with their economic well being. If it's on the ground, it's trash, but if you use it as a canvas, it becomes material for art.”
He often works on several pieces at the same time. A number of canvases covered with electronic waste are laid out on his desk. He stands before them without deciding what to paint, and lets his brush move as it pleases. He says that the source of her inspiration is the scenery of Agbogbroshi. Adults covered in oil and sweat. Smiling children who spoke to him. The painting of a bear was inspired by a stuffed animal that a local girl had.
The most important thing for Nagasaka is not to let his ego or technique as an artist come to the fore, but to instead ask, "What is the best way to convey the situation the region is in?” Before he came across the region, he would use water based ink in his art. But seeing the people work covered in industrial oil, he realized, "It's not water, it's oil," and decided to use oil paintings and local trash.
In 2020, he painted 625 pieces of all sizes. Nagasaka says that every time he completes a piece, local trash is reduced, which, he explains, is the reason he works so prolifically. Whenever one of his paintings is purchased by someone in a developed country, his art becomes an advertisement and speaks quietly and eloquently about the situation of the area from the moment it is displayed in their home or office,
“My message and passion spread further and further throughout the world.”
Nagasaka started his career as an artist in 2009, when he was 23 years old. He began painting in Shinjuku and other areas of Tokyo as a street artist. However, he was unable to earn much money. He made do with the small amount of prize money he won in contests, and traveled to 15 countries around the world, visiting New York, Paris, and London, to sell his works to galleries. “I wanted someone to discover me. I was hoping that someone would promote me as an artist," Nagasaka recalls. He visited as many as 500 galleries around the world, but was not taken seriously. When he realized that almost nine years had passed, his heart began to break, thinking that he was not wanted by the world.
However, after a long period of anguish and frustration, his best work finally sold at a high price. He used the money to open his own gallery, and things began to turn around. He used this to begin his own gallery, which marked a turn in luck for him. A fashion brand was launched, sponsored by a long-established apparel company, and it was chosen for a billboard for a fashion building in Shinjuku, Tokyo. A commercial in which he drew pictures while wearing clothes he designed and singing a song he wrote was aired on massive monitors.
“It was the moment all my dreams came true. I was so moved and grateful, and I was filled with generosity. I could not keep my feelings of thanks to myself. I had been so focused on myself, but began to I feel a change in my heart, and wanted to live for others.”
Just around that time, he happened to read a small column in a business newspaper and learned about the Agbogbroshi district.
“I saw a picture of a little girl standing on a pile of trash, and an electric current ran through my body. The next moment, I decided to go there.”
He thought he had been all over the world, but had never been to Africa. It was a dangerous place where there was no telling what might happen to a Japanese person. He was hesitant, but decided to go. “It is the graveyard of capitalism”, he thought, shocked. After a few days of chaotic stimulation and surprise, he got them to share the plastic trash with him, and promised that he would use it to make and sell pictures, and headed home.
He wanted to do something, but hesitated; he thought, "How can a painter take on a mountain capitalist trash alone?" The reality of the situation was overwhelming, and there was the success he had achieved after a long struggle. On December 25 of the same year, after days of agony, he went to see a large piece of art for he was commissioned by a large department store in Tokyo to create for Christmas. Just as the clock struck midnight, a waste disposal company knocked over the piece and started to remove it.
"I was shocked. Regardless of my idealistic thoughts, I was one of the people creating trash. I tried to drink away the hollowness, and became as depressed as I had ever been. Then I heard the sound of my hand tapping the bottom of the hole. So, on the first day of 2018, I made a vow that I would devote myself to saving the district."
In March of that year, he held a special three-hour event to exhibit and sell his paintings about the area. He declared to the crowd, "I will devote my life to saving the slums of Ghana." Along with the dozens of works being exhibited, he also showed video of the region, played the piano, and did everything he could as a creator. As a result, tens of millions of yen worth of paintings were sold.
As of March 2021, Nagasaka owns seven stores in Japan, with plans to open more in Hong Kong, New York, and Paris. His sales were 300 million yen in 2020, and he estimates that they will double this year and next. He only pay himself 5% of the total sales, and the remaining profits are invested in environmental projects. In 2019, he established the first cultural facility in the Agbogbroshi district, the MAGO E-Waste Museum. It is being operated as a resource for local tourism. They have also built a school for children. He has also raised financing through crowdfunding to produce a documentary film called "Still A "BLACK" STAR" in Hollywood to inform people about the current situation in the area.
As of last year, he supplied 850 gas masks, and in 2021, a system has been established to provide 200 masks to the area every month. In addition, plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art recycling plant by 2030, which will create 10,000 local jobs. He hopes to build their first small waste processing plant soon. He says that to change the current situation in the area, it is necessary to pursue "sustainable capitalism" rather than volunteerism or charity
"It's great to see sales increase. It proves that we are making a greater contribution to society. We are one step closer to building the plant. We can reduce the amount of trash by hundreds of kilograms. And it will lead to informing tens of thousands of people about environmental issues. Once the factory is built, the chips made with recycled materials will be produced and sold to developed countries to create an economic cycle. By making money in developed countries, we can contribute to society by creating a sustainable system that will enrich the local community with the profits. Sustainable capitalism is different from simple capitalism in terms of values and the actions one should take."
Nagasaka is determined to take on this great mission. He is taking action to inform the world, and is looking ahead, hoping to further his substantial work in the future. The core and starting point of his activism is his paintings of Agbogbroshi. "I can't go back and see them in Ghana," he thinks to himself as he enthusiastically carves his message onto the canvas day in and day out.
The name of a commercial district near the center of Accra, the capital of Ghana. It is known as a dumping ground for automobile and electronic scrap collected from developed countries. Plastic is a problem because it does not biodegrade, nor does it provide any economic value to the local community. Nagasaka states, "The engagement between art that will last for 1,000 years and everlasting plastics is great.”
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