Because many in Africa lack access to formal water sources (in Lagos as few as 1 in 10), the yellow jerrycan is everywhere. Peruse any news article about girls on the continent and count the jerrycans, sitting beside a muddy pond, being filled underneath a water pump, balanced precariously by a child scarcely larger than one.
Originally designed by the German military, Allied forces eventually recognised their superior design and manufactured millions, helping to change the course of the Second World War, making a particular impact on the North African campaign.
Since then the cans have proliferated across the continent, shipped to African ports filled with cooking oil and diesel and repurposed to carry water, local brew, petrol. Today they are manufactured locally in many places on the continent, but because of relative poverty and their enduring durability, most are recycled and reused over and over again.
In Ghana they are named Kufuor gallons, after the presidency marked by the 1994 water crisis. This history, as well as the omnipresence of the yellow containers in a landscape burdened by plastic waste, make them attractive options for artists who are interested in commenting on the political.
In the jerrycans Jeremiah Quarshie sees a symbol of the strength of Ghanaian women which he then represents in his hyperrealist portaits. In his paintings, the cans are a throne for women of diverse backgrounds. They are the great equalizer; during the water crises, rich or poor, everyone needed them.
“It always looks like African women carry a certain magnitude of strength.”
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s Afrogallonism movement uses jerrycans to make large scale installations and performance art that comments on waste and the environment.
Deeply embedded in the community in which he works, Clottey’s expansive works ask people to consider alternative uses for the plastic rather than throwing them into the gutters and onto the beach.
Other artists take advantage of human pareidolia to give life to the otherwise anonymous and identical objects. In his masks, Beninois artist Romuald Hazoumè continues a tradition of Yoruba mask-making, imbuing each with the symbols of the orishas.
He does this most effectively in his breathtaking work “La Bouche du Roi” which uses jerrycans to make the link between the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary black market petrol-runners between Benin and Nigeria. The work, which references the 18th-century print of the Brookes, a slave ship that was used by abolitionists, is a deeply powerful meditation on past and continued economic exploitation, in which the dehumanised petrol containers (slaves) are given back their identities.
In Kenyan artist Cephas Mutua Muthini’s work the jerrycan becomes not the individual, but the everyman. Depicting scenes of protest that are common across the continent and the globe, the angry men could be anyone, anywhere. His work portrays both human capacity for war and and an innate desire for peace.
The jerrycans are a favoured subject for Ugandan photographer Martin Kharumwa. He’s a friend of mine, so I asked him to talk about why
“It is uniquely minimalist and beautiful which appeals to me, I tried to see if I can glamourize this mundane thing”
In one series, Kharumwa photographs the various objects used to seal the jerrycan after the red cap has long been lost.
“It spoke to these little everyday sculptures that we do.” His work has more to say about African ingenuity. Indeed the yellow jerrycans seem to be one item in an ultra-capitalist world that has escaped extreme branding, commodification and planned obsolescence.
“The brokenness of something doesn’t justify it not being used, like a lost piece doesn’t justify you getting a new one, you just find a creative way to seal the cap”
Jerrycans! Whether weighted by history or asymbolic and appealing in their anonymity, African artists continue to be inspired by their ability to be remade anew.