Rise of the Upcycling Artists

I first met Jeff Scofield, Art Director, Gallery 76, at Dubai International Art Centre (DIAC), when he invited a bunch of us artists under the ZeeArts Community umbrella to celebrate International Migrants Day at DIAC. (Read more about our painting session here). Since then, I’ve noticed the rise of the upcycling artists around town — artists who are passionate about bringing a new purposeful (repurposed if you like) message about incorporating seemingly ‘unrecycl-able’ things that would otherwise go to the landfill, into our artwork.

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I had, early this year, been privileged to visit the Mangroves of the Water project, spearheaded by Stephanie Neville an artist I’ve known over a decade. (Read an article I wrote about her work eons ago. Sadly, the blog story about the exhibition disappeared marred by other technicality issues when my blog was hacked. Will get the story up and running soon). Jeff’s work came onto my radar once again at Sikka Art Fair where he created an installation in one of the courtyards, filled with paper and string (See image below).

This article takes a look at some of the exhibitions around town where artists showcased upcycled work (in particular Jeff, Beena Samuel and Diyali Sen Bhalla) — the Change Initiative exhibition and Jeff’s exhibit at Jam Jar, Al Serkal Avenue. Sadly, due to prior writing project commitments, I was unable to attend the workshops or public talks delivered by the three artists on the theme of sustainability.

As I write this piece, the retail section of the Change Initiative that was located close to Tecom/Barsha has been closed down. Such a shame, considering that the establishment did a lot to raise awareness around green eating, living and making art the upcycled way.

It all started in 2015…

It was at Art Hub that Jeff, Stephanie, Beena and Diyali showcased their upcycled work following their Artist in Residence programme. Jeff recalls, “This is where we explored sustainable art themes. Since then, I have exhibited at Sikka Art Fair as part of Art Dubai 2016. My sustainable artwork also won a prize for the International Emerging Artist Award in 2016, which was accompanied by a group show at TAG bxl Gallery in Brussels, Belgium. Other exhibitions include World Art Dubai 2016 and the Change Initiative last month. I also showed pieces at the Pullman Hotel in Deira during this past year. I currently have a display of my sustainable art at the United States Embassy in Abu Dhabi.”

Jeff’s story of sustainability through art evolved over time. He says, “I started recycling construction materials onto canvas about 7 years ago. This lead to my salvaging metal and wood for sculptures, and later upcycling used furniture and other found objects into artwork. I’ve been doing large-scale installations for over 2 years now in a natural evolution of expressing sustainable themes through art.”

It was at the Change Initiative where the public took part in workshop (delivered by Beena and Diyali) to learn the art of weaving in upcycled materials. “The main objective is to show the public that it is possible to create beautiful art that uses upcycled material so that people’s lives are enhanced. Workshops also bring out the creative spark in people.”

Let’s go back to 1998…

I was drawn to recycling in a big way when I was undertaking a Masters Degree in life sciences. The experience of being able to upcycle, reuse or recycle materials instead of throwing them into the landfill grew on me, when I visited and stayed with friends and family over the years in the UK (read: summer holidays). There was a system of recycling things. Glass bottles went into a designated box and the same went for paper and plastic. Every week, the recycling guys would turn up to every house in the neighbourhood and take away these boxes. My friends had a garden and any left over vegetable skins and fruits went into the soil of the garden. This kind of lifestyle where every house on the neighbourhood had the mentality of saving nature for the future was quite appealing indeed.

In Dubai, for a little while, I did use vegetable peels for the soil, but then gave up on this project. I did have some luck in growing an avocado plantling and tomato plants till the hot temperatures got to them. Instead, I made the decision to incorporate many materials in my art and design projects: outer papery onion skills, used tea bags and tea powder, used coffee grounds, egg shells, tissues and bags as well as wire crochet work leftover from previous craft projects. One example of my upcycled artwork is shown below (Read more about this exhibition here).

Saving the Planet

Jeff believes that upcycling used materials into sustainable art pieces might save our planet. “Raising awareness about such issues is important so that the public understands and incorporates the art of upcycling and recycling into their daily lives.” Gauging that by the popularity of the artworks that Jeff, Beena and Diyali showed the Change Initiative, it seems evident that people are looking for ways to creating beautiful works of art while still being conscious about how they can resuse materials of sorts into their work.

Beena Samuel and Diyali shared their story about through an email based interview.

Beena :

“My artwork is very spontaneous and intuitive. All kinds of found and used materials go into making my art pieces, thus emphasising the fact that garbage has interesting possibilities. Some of the found materials I’ve used are newsprint/magazine strips, cotton/silk/hesian fabric, packaging materials (cardboard/brown paper/bubble wrap), broken pottery/glass & ceramic tiles from construction sites, wood, metal hangers. I have been working with upcycled materials for the past 4 years now. So, when the opportunity to show our sustainable art came at the Change Initiative, we saw that the ethos matched with our recycled/sustainable art practice that we felt compelled to participate in their event. Many of our artworks and sculptures were sold and it seems that we have been able to hook people’s attention through our recycled art practice.”


The workshop at the Change Initiative was a great incentive to put into practice what we preach. At the workshop, there were 6 adults who enjoyed working with various found and used material. We made newsprint, fabric, cardboard, buttons and metal hangers available to them. The purpose of the workshop was to give the public a chance to try something different. They learnt to see materials that they would usually throw away in different light. One of them went off with an interesting looking woven piece. In addition, I hope that by enjoying our art with found objects, people will come to appreciate beauty in unusual materials and think twice about throwing them away.

As I write this piece, the retail section of the Change Initiative that was located close to Tecom/Barsha has been closed down. Such a shame, considering that the establishment did a lot to raise awareness around green eating, living and making art.

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