Artist Nereus Patrick Cheo is bringing together disadvantaged children and grooming them for war against garbage dumps in the largest city of Cameroon, Douala.
“I actually work with street children, orphans and minors in prison. I implant in them this culture of using art to produce things that you can make a living out of, and at the same time use art to make the environment clean," Cheo declares.
"That’s the part I’m playing. That’s the change I’m making in their lives. There’re lots of them I’ve taken off the streets," says Cheo
Cheo’s father, himself an artist, taught him how to be creative, by utilizing locally available materials for art.
Taking it to another level
Accompanied by his army of trained artists, the dread-locked Cheo rakes through foul-smelling refuse dumps for solid wastes, including plant leaves, paper, fabrics, plastics, electronic chips and computer casings.
He then transforms them into fine-looking flower jars, beads, statues and murals. He says such outings are usually an ordeal, but they do draw public attention to his work.
“Generally when I collect from the [garbage dumps], people mock me. However when I assemble and produce art, people rush behind me [to see what I’ve produced]. So far, Cameroonians are getting very much interested in arts. Be it recycled painting or sculpture, they always respond and ask lots of questions,” Cheo says.
He is not not discouraged
Cheo often showcases his works within and beyond Cameroon and has created an association called Kids4Peace to teach underprivileged children fine arts courses. Classes are held in the streets as he lacks a workshop.
The kids consider Cheo a godsend. He uses money made from selling some of his artwork to buy material for the street classes. Some of the works, like paper beads and necklaces made from dumped newspapers, sell like hotcakes at exhibitions.
Cheo not only uses art to protect the environment, but for social justice.
He wants to empower street children, and make them feel like they are stars. Cheo, a member of the International Children Arts Fund, ICAF, is preparing his students for the upcoming Art Olympiad, which will be held in 2011 in the United States. He also hopes to go to the Olympic Games in the United Kingdom.
Cheo is multi-talented
He is an accomplished painter and a graphics designer. He likes screen painting on t-shirts and ceramics, as well as video shooting and editing.
But for now, he is content working with the needy children of Douala and wants to continue clearing the streets from solid, non-biodegradable wastes.
Douala’s estimated three million inhabitants generate over 1600 tons of household refuse daily. The city council says because of financial constraints, a quarter of that amount remains uncollected. That means 400 tons of garbage is piled on the streets of Douala on a daily basis.
Clean air in Douala, the country’s industrial hub, is also rare as hundreds of factories belch foul smells and discharge solid wastes.
Critics blame the situation on the weak enforcement of regulations, a lack of funding, chaotic urbanization and reckless behavior.
But hope still abounds. Alongside government efforts to control rubbish is an emerging breed of artists -- gathering trash and turning it into exquisite works of art.
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