The Junk Art King of Zambia

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Frederick Phiri, Junk Artist Paula Froelich

It's not often you meet someone who can turn garbage into gold. Yet in the small town of Mfuwe, just outside Zambia's Luangwa National Park, an artist is performing just such alchemy.

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Artist Frederick Phiri who lives in Mfuwe, Zambia, and makes beautiful sculptures out of scrap metal. Paula Froelich

Frederick Phiri is the junk-art king of central Africa: At just 22, he's started to earn an international reputation for being able to make intricate and elegant sculptures from scrap metal found in his community.

As it is with most of life, his talent was aided by good timing—and luck -- that came from tragedy.

"My father died when I was starting [primary] school," Phiri tells Newsweek. "So my mother and sisters moved to Lusaka and I stayed behind with my grandfather."

Phiri's grandfather paid for his schooling through primary school but when he entered secondary school, he had to get odd jobs to pay for his fees. But even in school, "I was always drawing and making things in class," Phiri says.

After graduating, he did what he could to support himself in a country where the average annual salary is $1,500. He made animal sculptures from snare wires and sold them to tourists. His work was so popular, it caught the eye of Karen Beattie, director of Project Luangwa, a nonprofit dedicated to education and economic development in Mfuwe.

"I introduced him to a local welder as an apprentice," Beattie told Newsweek.

In 2017, Phiri apprenticed with welder Moses Mbewe during the rainy season, helping to make an intricate set of doors for Project Luangwa. The piece sparked an idea in Beattie's mind: "I handed him a bunch of metal scrap and said, 'Make something with this.' And he did. It was wonderful."

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A chameleon made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia. Paula Froelich

Today, Phiri continues his art, using pieces of junk people bring him—keys, broken bike chains, old spark plugs and whatever scrap metal is lying around. (And there is a lot of it.) He then turns the detritus into abstract animals—elephants, cranes, giraffes, chameleons—and sells them at Project Luangwa headquarters. The community has recognized his talents and his de-facto community clean-up project.

"My dream is to earn enough study art at the Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka and be able to make a living from it," Phiri said. "And then to make very large sculptures."

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A porcupine made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia.Paula Froelich
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A giraffe made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia.Paula Froelich
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Artist Frederick Phiri who lives in Mfuwe, Zambia, at his outdoor workshop making sculptures out of scrap metal.Paula Froelich
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A buffalo made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia. Paula Froelich
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An elephant made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia. Paula Froelich
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A hippo made of metal scrap by Frederick Phiri for sale in the Project Luangwa shop in Mfuwe, Zambia. Paula Froelich