Everyone must have seen African tin toys made from reused tin cans, and the wire frame type that are often rather unsettling in their ghostliness.

The toy influence is obvious when you see this.

It’s the maquette for a much larger work that seems to have been made in a similar way from even bigger tin cans like oil drums. But it wasn’t and it’s connection to oil is far more sinister.

It’s a new memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and activist executed 11 years ago in Nigeria for his campaign against the environmental devastation of the Niger delta, and the oil-companies-sponsored campaign of genocide against the Ogoni people who live there. There is a great article and slide show about its construction by artist Sokari Douglas Camp in the Guardian.

It also reminded us of another vehicle,

one of the most impressive and unaccountably moving artworks we saw this year, by Paul Hopmeier at Defiance Gallery. Made from adaptively reused truck parts, it was based on an exhibit he saw in the Hermitage in St Petersburg,

a 5th century BC funerary vehicle, constructed from birch wood. Hopmeier’s open cage tumbril is as disturbing as the blind windows of the Saro-Wiwa bus, both vehicles of the dead.

But Ken Saro-Wiwa was hardly the first artist-activist executed on dubious charges. One of the greatest was also a master of adaptive reuse. We mean, of course, Joe Hill, the unionist and song writer executed in 1915. As an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (motto “sing and fight”) he wrote numerous parodies of popular songs and hymns – why should the devil have all the best tunes indeed! A typical example is “The preacher and the slave” (sung here by Shannon Murray), his version of the Salvation army dirge “In the sweet bye and bye” which gave us the now common term “pie in the sky”. The song’s condemnation of religious delusion and passivity in the face of injustice has not lost its bite in our age cursed by corporate religions.

His memorial is in the form of the great song “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill“, the first song to be sung in the Sydney Opera House for an audience of construction workers by an unaccompanied Paul Robeson. Robeson himself could almost be considered a martyr artist-activist, his achievements still slandered and his career destroyed because of his life-long and world-wide fight against racism.

Unfortunately Ken Saro-Wiwa is unlikely to to be the last martyr to corporate greed in the difficult century ahead.

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