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Monday, 19 June 2017

Roy Jethro Phiri: Young Zambian artist builds miniature robocops and robodogs from scrap

By Andrew Mulenga

(Story first published in the Bulletin & Record magazine 2013 October edition)

When most 17-year-old urban youths are not in school, they spend their recreational time ‘hanging out’ at shopping malls, watching movies, playing video games, fidgeting with their mobile phones or – whether we like it or not – indulging in alcohol abuse among other vice propelled activities.

A robotic police officer by Roy J. Phiri
But  Roy Jethro Phiri, a grade 12 pupil at St. Raphael’s Secondary School in Livingstone, a young man who declares he has had his share of teenage mischief, spends long hours creating miniature sculptures you would expect to see on the set of a Hollywood science fiction movie.

Using all types of miniscule, discarded material such as old cuff links, radio knobs and lighter switches, he creates convincing robotic dogs and police officers, and although they are inanimate, they give you the feeling that they might get up and start moving.

“When I was young”, which ironically was only last year “I wanted to make a ring from my mother’s old glasses. But I ended up making a necklace instead. So sometimes I will start with one idea and end up making something else”, he says as he adds the last bit of adhesive to the breastplate of a robotic policeman. The breastplate is a former label from the protective casing of a ‘Police’ brand of sunglasses.  

Robodog,  a miniature robotic dog by Roy J. Phiri
“But the way it all started, is that I see shapes in the smallest things and then I think what if I stick this and that together what will I be able to create”, he says “I just throw pieces on the floor or on a table then I go to work”.

Phiri believes God blessed him with a photographic memory which he says has been quite helpful when he is creating miniatures. Apart from robots, he is also a submarine, aviation, car and motorcycle enthusiast who is confident that he will someday design all of these things if he gets the proper motivation and education.

A miniature chopper by Roy Phiri
“I have pictures of motorbikes in my head, so when I saw the top of a used cigarette lighter I knew that this will be ideal for my motorbike’s fuel tank,” he says gesturing to a ‘chopper’ that he created as he went on to explain that the chopper which has a long front end with extended forks is often mistaken for a Harley Davidson.

After he gave the author a brief lesson in various types of motorcycles, he explained that he was inspired after he rode one virtually while playing a round of the popular computer game Grand Theft Auto, which would imply that contrary to common belief computer games are not entirely a influence on youngsters, here is a teenager whose creativity has been triggered by one. He also gets inspiration from cartoons.

SUV by Roy J. Phiri
“For this bike, I went to an old radio and got the knobs which I later used as the wheels, I also used some stuff from an old fishing rod,” he explains saying that he is in his comfort zone when he has all these bits and pieces in front of him.
“I never get tired as long as I have my glue and my pieces in front of me. I use super glue as well as prime bond to stick my pieces together.”

Some of the pieces that he uses are in fact so miniscule one would think he uses a magnifying glass and can easily pass for a Swiss watch maker.

Phiri has several boxes filled with the discarded trinkets that he collects in his backpack. For him every day is an adventure because he never knows what next he is going to make. He does not draw sophisticated sketches or blueprints but creates his works adlib or ‘freestyle’ as it were, and the does all this in a house that does not have electricity, often working under candle light at night.

Roy makes his miniature sculptures
from hundreds of used objects
Fortunately, a friend of his, Mr Kondwani Yombwe is the son of the renowned Livingstone art couple, Mr Lawrence Yombwe and wife Mrs Agnes Buya Yombwe whom after being introduced to the boy and being moved by his work offered him space in their Wayi Wayi Art Studio. Mr Phiri can be found at the studio taking advantage of the well-lit space when he wants to work late; the reason why the house he lives in does not have electricity is due to some recent renovations he and his mother made to it. He says he and his mother did not even hire a brick layer to build the extension to the main house in which they are living, they did it all by themselves.

He says his mother, Junita Heppletchwaite – who is of Lozi and Dutch heritage – is the most innovative person he knows, and it has not been easy for her to raise him as a single mother. His father, Jay Adolph Phiri once a famous Zambian musician and member of The Rising Stars a popular boy-band that took the country by storm in the 1970’s performing both locally and internationally, died when he was only four years old. However, owing to young Mr Phiri’s photographic memory he still remembers and cherishes the moments he spent with his father for the first few years of his life.

Roy Phiri applies some finishing touches
to one of his miniature sculptures
But it is to his mother that he looks up to due to her perseverance in raising him and his siblings, which was not always easy as they had to move from town to town, Chingola, Ndola and finally Livingstone and he has vowed to make her proud by becoming a success in life. His dream is to acquire a scholarship that would enable him to study Robotics or Industrial Design after he completes his secondary school. A degree in Industrial Design would enable him to use both applied art to design as well as invent anything from household products to new types of vehicles.

But among Phiri’s top aspirations is being able to design artificial limbs by the use of Cybernetics to assist amputees and accident victims.

As much as his prodigious creative talent, is coupled with the advantage of youthful enthusiasm, the devoted young Christian believes in God’s grace and in September this year, he attended a deliverance sermon at Divine Fire Cathedral in Livingstone.
“I met Christ, I was one person who never wanted to hear anything about God, but now I am a changed person”, says Mr Phiri.


Zambia may not have the adequate infrastructure and mentoring routines to groom this future engineer, but it is exciting that the country has such animated brains and talent, and all we can do is watch and wish him all the best, he may just put the country on the map one day. - ENDS

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