If you head to the Three Rivers Arts Festival (TRAF) this year, you might notice seven large, rainbow-colored animal sculptures in and around the Wyndham Lawn near Gateway Center. But the eye-catching public artworks aren’t made from marble or other traditional sculpting materials – they’re made from found flip-flops recovered from the beaches and waterways of Kenya.


Ocean Sole Africa sculptures at Three Rivers Arts Festival

Sculpted by Ocean Sole Africa, the pieces seek to raise awareness of ocean pollution and mass extinction, as the chosen animals, including giraffes, elephants, sea turtles, and rhinos, are classified as endangered species. The organization was founded in 2007 by Julie Church, a marine conservationist who noticed large numbers of flip-flops while exploring the waters and beaches around Kenya. 

The sculptures were brought to Pittsburgh by Drap-Art, a Barcelona-based nonprofit organization and festival that showcases artists who work with recycled materials or create art with a focus on the environment. 

“These animals are fun, they’re impressive, and at the same time, they are easy to understand,” says Drap-Art president, Tanja Grass. “It’s not very conceptual, contemporary art. It’s very straightforward, but it’s very well done, and it’s also raising awareness about something important, especially now with the new politics getting rid of all the environmental laws. It’s really up to the citizens to inform themselves and see what they can do to save ourselves from our own rubbish.”

TRAF attendees can also purchase smaller versions of the sculptures, which are also made of recycled flip-flops, in the festival gift shop.

Discarded flip-flops contribute to a massive environmental threat, as reflected in a 2017 report by Eunomia. The report estimated that eight million tons of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials were entering the oceans every year, much of of it washing up on the East African coast.

The sculptures are made by fusing the flip-flops together to make rubber blocks that are then carved with a knife and sanded down. To make the pieces lighter, the heads and legs of the animals are made with solid blocks while the bodies contain a filling of recycled foam and styrofoam, which is then surrounded with two or three layers of flip-flop material. 

Grass points out that Ocean Sole Africa also serves an economic role for families in Kenya, a country with a 40 percent unemployment rate. She says an “army of ladies” are hired to collect and clean the flip-flops, which are then converted into sculpture work by a team of artists and craftspeople. The work extends to tribal wood carvers in Nairobi, who use the flip-flops to continue their traditional handicraft.

On its website, Ocean Sole Africa estimates that it recycled over half a million flip-flops in 2017 and aims to recycle one million this year. They claim that their work impacts over 1,000 Kenyans through the collection of flip-flops and direct employment. 

The organization also claims to contribute 10-15 percent of its revenue to beach cleanups and vocational and educational programs, as well as conservation efforts.

Grass believes that the sculptures are a more effective way to draw people into addressing issues affecting the planet. 

“I always think you can point the finger at people and tell them, ‘you have to be more conscious, don't use plastic, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ but that doesn’t really always work,” says Grass. “I think if you find a playful way of making people aware, it sinks it much more, maybe. I hope.”