Artist Katya Akuma on Recycling and Refugee Reform

Katya Akuma’s work as an artist and philanthropist hammers in social change.

Whether through her nonprofit organization, the Council for Fashion and Social Change or at the art studio, Katya Akuma continuously contributes to social reform and rehabilitation. As an artist and activist, her work is always backed by social responsibility. Her philosophy is social change through creation and collaborations that bring awareness to problems and people. Akuma is an artist dedicated and determined to create positive change through supporting emerging graduate designers to local artisans in Haiti and India. She has also brought relief to immigrants, refugees, and sex-trafficking survivors through campaigns and fundraising.

Embedded in her designs is the ethos of recycling and upcycling to ensure sustainable and economically creative output. Akuma was handpicked for a design fellowship with Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation after completing her master’s degree at Parsons School of Design. The collaboration saw her working in conjunction with local artisans in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to create collections of home goods. Inspired by her fellowship days, Akuma learned from Haitian artisans how art and productivity can be manifested from any material.

“I utilize ubiquitous and overlooked objects in my artworks. I find discarded leather to be an extremely rewarding element because of its sensory qualities and ability to trigger emotions. Recycled leather acts as a metaphor for a personal repository of complex memories, traceable through one’s olfactory senses.” says Akuma. 

Depicting portraits with discarded leather scraps, Akuma brings to life the faces of strong and striking women in her collection called “Mothers”. Intertwining layers of leather with the intensive manual labor is the artist’s way of reflecting; mirroring the faces she has met in her efforts and social movements through her artistic and philanthropic journey. 

Hammering into her designs, are permanent expressions of a legacy of women, stamped with nails on wood outlining their faces and shades of complexion. She purposefully deconstructs to reconstruct the injustices in the world through challenging roles, historical stereotypes, and unfortunate circumstances. Bringing a sense of depth and the hidden, unwritten scripts of her philosophy. “I use recycled fabric because it is already charged with layers of history and personal stories.” says the artist. 

Portraying her personal story as an immigrant, she explores the intimate composition of identity, molded by nature and nurture. Cultivated by the cultures that have raised her, she migrated and manifested her individuality. Investigating transnational identity, displacement, and belonging through her art, she challenges the inherent struggle and strife of immigration. “My layering technique is used to distort and fragment the artwork. Intending to invite the audience to visually perceive the weight and complexity of immigrant issues and reflect on their own experiences.” says the artist. 

 “The process of layering was guided by intuition and the rhythmic, repetitive and meditative act of hammering, which possesses symbolic qualities associated with taking back control of life.” the artist continues. Through her work with nonprofit organizations and charities, Akuma hammers home the idea of rehabilitation as she encourages refugees, immigrants, and sex trafficking survivors through reform and reinforcement. 

In another rendition representing her contribution to social change, we see Akuma’s dedication to refugees who overcame significant challenges while trying to find a new home. Most recently, Akuma is working on sculptures for a commemorative work dedicated to refugees. The artwork will be meticulously crafted from discarded mannequins and covered with deconstructed life-vests that were once worn by refugees. A symbol of safety and shelter at the time of migration, life-vest have material significance allowing the owner to discard the vest that safeguarded their life during a traumatic transition. Life-vests are heavily infused with memories, intertwined with refugee histories, identities, and embodies the passage of time and the eternal desire for home.

When We Band Together will be working in partnership with Akuma, the organization will be supporting the installation by donating the life-vests left by refugees on the shores of Lesvos, Greece. Supporting refugee initiatives, WWBT upcycles life-vests making products that raise awareness for the refugee crisis. 

Akuma has developed a unique storytelling technique, involving densely layered discarded leather and found objects that often depict themes of history, collective memory, and nostalgia. Through her use of recycled material as her medium, she seeks to highlight the creative potential of repurposed materials while inviting the audience to reconsider the environmental impact of their consumption and disposal.

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