Smithsonian Sparks

These giraffes are made from flip-flops washed up on the Kenyan coast

July 29, 2021
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Three giraffe sculptures in many bright colors

Giraffes created by Jonathan Lento, Francis Mutua Muvua and Charles Kimeu of the Ocean Sole project. Photo by Zvonimir Bebek, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Every year, hundreds of thousands of flip-flops wash up on the shores of the East African coast. The Ocean Sole project was created in 1983 to address the tons of debris that threaten the environment and its wildlife.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Ocean Sole employs more than 100 people to make innovative art from recycled materials. Many of the artisans with Ocean Sole trained as wood carvers.

Their designs are inspired by the endangered animals they protect. After the flip-flops are collected and cleaned, artisans glue their rubber soles into blocks. They sculpt the compressed blocks into animal shapes, jewelry, keychains and more. Larger pieces are formed around foam bases covered with overlapping soles, which are then carved, sanded and shaped.

Carvers Francis Mutua Muvua and Jonathan Lento brought this giraffe family to Washington, D.C., for the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They stand 4.5 to 7.5 feet tall. It takes three artisans two full weeks to create a large giraffe.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has celebrated cultural heritage since its start in 1967. Explore objects and stories from decades of the festival in an online exhibition and purchase pieces by Ocean Sole on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Marketplace.