Plugged in and turned on. All paper. All the time.
Introducing Joshua Strydom, a BFA student at Memphis College of Art. We met through Instagram (believe it!) when he posted a photo of paper he’d made from elephant dung. Read on to discover what inspires him, why he chose dung as a source for cellulose, and the process he used to accomplish the papermaking.
I was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe and moved to Memphis in 2012 to broaden my knowledge of Art. I am a Junior at Memphis College of Art, pursuing a BFA in Fine Arts, double concentration in photography and printmaking with a minor in Art History. My art is heavily influenced by the experiences I had growing up and my intense love for Zimbabwe, my family and the values I have learned through the course of my life. I travel far and often, observing and learning from other cultures. I put these life lessons into my art in the hopes of informing foreign cultures of other ideals and social metaphors.
About the Project
I have been working with the theme of ‘Tsumo Nemadikira’ (African- Shona Proverbs) for a few years. Tsumo are small sayings or proverbs used to instruct children and are told in the Shona language, the Tribal language in Zimbabwe. When they are translated directly into English they make little to no sense, and are rather humorous. I remember being told these proverbs as a child, and having no idea what they meant. As I got older I began to understand the significance and lessons within the proverbs.
I am working on a series of visual representations of these proverbs; printing linoleum blocks into various surfaces, such as cement, copper foil, and elephant dung paper to expand the project conceptually and have a stronger narrative. The cement is in representation of how these proverbs are strong and stand the test of time. They are steady and constant. The copper foil has a modern aesthetic, being smooth and manufactured. Although I grew up hearing these Tsumo, they still belong to a different culture. I am a white Zimbabwean, interpreting a native tradition. The modern material shows my colonial interpretation of Tsumo. The elephant dung paper is made from a duplicitous substance. Elephants have different significance in different circumstances to the people of Zimbabwe. Their dung is believed to hold spiritual power by some, and is used as a drug by others. I used this paper as a symbol of taboo, to display something beautiful on something repulsive. A western version of a Tsumo would be ‘you can polish a turd, but it’s still a turd’. Consider this a polished turd, whether or not it’s still a turd is up to you.
Making the Paper
I obtained the elephant dung from the local zoo. I simply arrived with a bucket and asked them to fill it up. There was a silent pause, a giggle and then they gladly gave me what I asked for. It was surprisingly easy to get a hold of. Colleen Couch-Smith, papermaking professor at Memphis College of Art, helped me tremendously. She gave me her papermaking knowledge and together we figured out a successful process to get beautiful (and sanitary) elephant dung paper. Our discoveries are detailed below.
I had a five gallon bucket full of unprocessed fresh elephant dung. The dung for this batch had been ‘made that day’ – it was very fresh. I would recommend using dry dung if possible, as it is easier to clean.
Step One: Rinse
I rinsed the elephant dung in a mesh bucket using a pressure hose. When you first start the smell will be very strong, so I’d recommend a mask for the beginning and gloves for the whole cleaning process. I found a medium-sized mesh works best; it needs to be small enough to keep all the plant fibers in, but open enough to let the biological matter pass through.
I used a pressure hose and rinsed small amounts, about 1/10th of the bucket at a time. Small amounts rinse more efficiently; you want to get all the biological matter out. The water will start to run clear but there will still be some biologicals left so turn the dung in the bucket a bit and continue rinsing. Once you have rinsed that part, place it in a clean bucket and repeat the rinsing process with the remaining dung until you have rinsed the entire bucket. I rinsed the entire bucket five times.
I placed the bucket on top of a grid with a fine mesh underneath, and placed all of that on top of the drain, so that I could throw away the biological matter, instead of washing it down the drain.
Step Two: Cook
Next, cook the fibers you have separated. It is not necessary to add soda ash, but if you want a very soft paper you can add some. The end result is a little rough in texture. If you want a more cotton-like texture, then add soda ash (1-2 Tbsp).
I boiled half the fibers at a time (because I don’t have a massive pot) for seven hours at a steady boil. The cellulose fibers will float to the top, so stir the pot occasionally. The ‘poo smell’ is gone at this point; it just smells like cabbage. Even though the smell is not putrid, it is pretty strong, I would recommend cooking outdoors. I put the lid on the pot and only added more water once.
Step Three: Beat
Next, I beat the fibers. Again, I processed half the bucket at a time. I put in the fibers with water and half a linter of dirty abaca and beat it for 30 minutes. This amount of time made the fibers small but still noticeable in the finished product, you can beat it more or less depending on what aesthetic you want. I added 2 Tbsp. of sizing into the beater.
side note: Adding sizing to the paper allows you to print on it using any dry printmaking technique. The paper does not hold well if you soak it for any period of time. There is a small amount of sand that remains in the pulp, something to be mindful of if you are using a letterpress. If you want to digitally print on the paper using an ink jet printer you need to calendar it and coat it with digital ground. If you want to use a laser jet printer you can just send it through with no further process.
Step Four: Pull Sheets
I pulled sheets with 100% fiber from the dung (using a mould and deckle). I gradually added recycled cotton from old t-shirts (just for color). I wanted some visual separation of the two fibers, so I added the fibers in the vat instead of in the beater. Surprisingly, I found that you can pull very thin sheets of the fiber from the dung, and it remains relatively strong. I would recommend couching onto pellon instead of felts. It is difficult to remove the paper from the felts after pressing them.
I put the stacks of paper into a press for 20 minutes and dried under pressure between blotters for 36 hours.
This is the end result of my full gradient.
From left to right: 50% purple cotton 50% dung, 25% purple cotton 75% dung, 25% gray cotton 75% dung, 100% dung.
This process is a lot of fun and makes for some great stories. Everyone asks about the smell. Once the paper is dry it has no smell, but I wont lie; it definitely has a smell during the process. It is strong initially but after you have rinsed once or twice the smell goes and it all becomes worth it. The end product is so beautiful and this fiber mixes so well with others. I have added cotton and abaca, both are wonderful. You can beat the fiber as much as you like. I kept the fibers, but made them small because I wanted to push them into the linoleum block.
Linoleum Cast Molds
I made linoleum cast molds using the pulp. I scooped pulp into a sieve and drained it until it was almost dry. Then I placed the pulp onto the linoleum block, distributed it with my hands and removed as much water as possible using a sponge. Once the pulp was hard to the touch I placed it in between two felts and pressboards, and put it in the press for 20 minutes. To dry the mold flat, I put it in between two blotters with weights on top and turned the fan on for 72 hours. If you leave it to dry in open air it will warp, which has an interesting aesthetic if that is what you are going for.
Here are two linoleum casts using the dung paper. First I made the casts, and then inked the block and printed it using an etching press.
The pattern is representational of owl’s feathers, showing its governing power over the composition, as it governs people’s actions. Because of the perceived horns of an owl, and the fact that it can rotate its head 360 degrees, people believe it to have spiritual powers. The owl is thought to bring death and bad luck. If a superstitious Zimbabwean sees an owl, they will kill it immediately and bury it away from their home. This is why I have placed the feathers and owl below the horizon line, as if it were buried.
The Tsumo I am using for this composition are:
“Mwana asingachemi anofira mumbereko”
English translation – A child who does not cry dies in the cradle.
Meaning – one should give voice to ones complaints.
“Chakatairi pasi ndeyavanhuvose asi iri mumuti ndeyo wagona kukwira”
English translation – The fruit on the ground belongs to everyone. That on the tree is for him who can climb.
Meaning – do not take anything for granted unless it is in your possession.
“Kungotya nyanga dzezizi nyamba manhenga”
English translation- It’s just fear of the horns of an owl, whereas they are feathers.
Meaning – don’t judge a book by its cover.
The Acacia trees in this composition are a ‘logo’ of the African bush veldt, an internationally recognized representation of the African landscape. I have included this tree to place the context of southern Africa.
There are Colonial Rhodesian roof lines in the composition. In the colonial era of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) there was a common aesthetic among the white farmers’ homes. They had strong, curved rooflines on the front façade of the houses. I have included these shapes to show my colonial idea of these indigenous proverbs, stating that even though I am representing Tsumo, I am doing so as a white African.
The Tsumo I am using for this composition are:
“Nzou hairemerwi nenyonga dzayo”
English translation – An elephant is not burdened by its own tusks/trunk.
Meaning – one is able to bear his/her own responsibilities.
“Nzou Mutupo pana vanhu paseri ava machikichor”
English translation – An elephant is taboo in public; in private it is delicious food.
Meaning – outward respectability may be a cover for secret self-indulgence/ don’t judge a book by its cover.
“Totendamaruva tadya chakata”
English translation – We believe in the blossoms when we have seen the fruit.
Meaning – ‘the proof is in the pudding.’
“Chinono Chine ingwe bere ninodya richifamba”
English translation – Caution characterizes the leopard; the hyena eats as he walks. Meaning – there is no time like the present (or) a there is power in numbers. Leopard is a solitary animal, thus he eats high up in trees so other animals don’t steal his food, Hyena’s live in packs, as a collective they have the means to overpower a leopard and steal its food on the ground.
“Dindingwe rinonakirwa richikweva iro kana rokwehwa roti mavara angu azara ivhu”
English translation – The cheetah enjoys pulling the other along. When it is pulled it says, “My spots are covered in dirt.”
Meaning – one objects to treatment that one gives to another.
For more examples of my work and to contact me, please visit my blog .
In the Fiber Wire’s newly established tradition, another great story with sufficient detail for us to understand the process. What is more touching – Joshua’s dedication to his craft, the African proverbs, or the underlying sense that we have lost this kind of wisdom in our American culture? Thanks for all the important strands of this post, Joshua and Genevieve!
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Kim, thank you for your interest! Im glad you enjoyed the post.
Great Story — more than just HOW to make the paper, i.e. what is the meaning behind it all…
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Good day I am an up coming artist in Harare and would like to know where I can buy paper from you to make prints on and what is the biggest size you make as well as your prices
Sadly I work between the USA and the Czech Republic. I do not usually sell in Zimbabwe, because the shipping costs are so high.
However, you can contact me through my website and I can see what I can arrange for you.
Thanks for your interest!
I am looking at buying elephant dung paper can I have contact details
you can reach me here: email@example.com