Although progress has been made, Macao still has a long way to go in terms of environmental protection. According to the State of the Environment of Macau 2022 report released earlier this month, each resident threw out 1.77 kilograms of solid waste each day in 2022, which is substantially more than the people of Beijing and Guangzhou, who each disposed of just 0.98 and 0.86 kilograms a day during the same period.
To make things even worse, a not-so-small part of the waste we produce ends up at the beach. Admittedly, not all of it has its origins in Macao. A big chunk of it streams down the delta from cities in the Greater Bay Area (where millions of people reside), especially after typhoons.
Tchusca Songo knows this well. The artist regularly collects pieces of trash that wash ashore at Hac Sa Beach. She then sorts through the found objects – which could consist of anything from discarded cigarette lighters to discarded buckets and spades and everything in between – mixing and matching them into thought-provoking artworks that make us reflect on our tendency to over-consume.
Born in Angola’s northern exclave of Cabinda in 1978 to a family that struggled to make ends meet, Songo grew up playing with makeshift toys. If anything, this brought out her creative streak. Today, Songo is a multi-disciplinary artist who, along with sculpture, has mastered woodcut printing, traditional lantern making, photography, jewellery making and puppetry.
Macao News sat down with the artist to talk about her current exhibition at Creative Macau “Rainbow in Disguise”, and how a change of mindset could help us towards a greener city.
When did you start creating your art out of trash?
I was born in Africa where not all children have the privilege of playing with manufactured toys. Coming from a poor family, I learned early how to make my own toys from discarded objects.
In Macao, it’s the opposite, people seem to have more than they need, throwing away a hodgepodge of different objects every single day, including TVs, washing machines, radios and furniture. Here, trash is fancy. This made me feel like we are not doing much when it comes to promoting the ‘3Rs’ as a culture – recycle, reuse, reduce – so I decided to do my part.
Every day, before I go to work, I go to Hac Sa beach and pick up [discarded] plastic [beach] toys – I may collect over a hundred plastic toys a day! I need to get there early in the morning, otherwise beach cleaners will throw them in the trash, which is sad.
Besides wanting to show people that anything can be turned into art, I feel it’s my duty as an artist to promote sustainability in our communities.
Is there any artist who has inspired you?
I admire Bordalo II, a Portuguese artist who works with trash on a large scale. I only wish I could create something of that scale. I am also inspired by the creativity of children in Africa who make their own toys out of anything they find.
When it comes to sustainability and environmental consciousness, where do you think Macao stands?
It’s not my intention to educate people, but rather to inspire younger generations through my creativity.
Macao has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to sustainability and environmental consciousness. The amount of trash left at Hac Sa beach over weekends is shocking. We keep buying single-use items, such as metal barbecue grills, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be reusing them..
I have asked people at the beach why they don’t take the toys back home with them and their answer was “they are dirty and the car will be dirty.”
What (governmental or otherwise) changes and initiatives would you like to see more of?
Macao may not be recycling 100 percent of the trash it produces but we should at least try to do better. We can no longer afford to play by the single-use rule. Funnily enough, you’ll see many prohibition signs by the beach, from no smoking to no dogs allowed, and so on, but no sign urging people not to leave trash.
But more than the government, this issue ultimately comes down to people’s consciousness. We should be talking more about environmental issues at school. Most children spend their lives between home and school so they have very few opportunities to see the impact their choices have on the environment.
I would like to see schools promoting competitions on making art from trash and to continue to work along this line of art, taking my exhibition to local schools.
What kind of impact do you hope to have with your creations?
I’ve received very good feedback from people who have admired some of the pieces in the exhibition, especially the bigger ones. Since I work in my house, my creations are limited by the constraints of the size of my apartment.
Young ones ask me if I bought all those toys to make my art, and when I tell them that I found them on the beach in Hac Sa they are surprised – how can it be since the toys look brand new?
I don’t work alone, I also give others the opportunity to be part of my work because I’m not just doing this for myself — it has an effect on a broader community. For instance, a sixth grade student from the International School of Macao, Kuan Sa, came up with the name for my current exhibition at Creative Macau.
My upcycled pieces are not significant for their commercial value, but for their ability to inspire and engage young people, who have the future of our planet in their hands. Every small step towards sustainability counts and I hope that my work can encourage others to join me in this effort. I hope people take their kids to see the exhibition.
Could you walk us through your creative process?
Every weekday I do a very light clean up at Hac Sa beach. Usually I carry two bags, one for recyclable materials and another for disposable trash. At the end of the day, when I finish work, I sort out the items for recycling by type, kind, colour and size before washing and drying them out.
With some pieces, I know what kind of artwork they’ll become from the moment I find them. Others, I keep for a long time before they become something else.
What is the weirdest trash you’ve found at Hac Sa?
Sex toys. I don’t think I will ever be able to make art out of those!
What are you working on next?
I will be partnering with Caritas Macau to organise a beach clean-up with around 20 people, followed by an art-making workshop using the trash we collect. We’ll also visit my exhibition at Creative Macau.