‘Art is just a less annoying way to communicate’

With a chest of mushroom roots, lamps made of recycled filters and a series of works of art, 25-year-old Antwerp Nina Maat shows the possibilities of the circular economy. “It’s often so hopelessly boring.”

Nina Maat pushes open the door to an empty shop on Huidevettersstraat in Antwerp. MUCE, a pop-up museum about the circular economy, opens here for a month on Friday. A one-man project where the 25-year-old Maat has brought together artists and designers with established companies such as the teleplayer Proximus, the window and door manufacturer Deceuninck and the bed maker Velda. ‘Here I am a cleaning wife, driver, manager and curator at the same time’, she laughs. “It’s a lot, but I just know how I want it.”

Maat will tell the story of the possibilities of the circular economy in a different way. “It’s often so hopelessly boring,” she sighs. ‘Scientists can explain something in the news, but if people don’t feel it, they won’t listen.’

Especially now, with corona, the war, the energy crisis, everyone needs alternatives. How is it possible? I want to show that.

Nina Maat

Initiator behind MUCE

Maat is sitting at a table, between the boxes. In the corner, where a bar will soon be built, it still stands empty. “It’s incredibly exciting,” she says. Some artwork is still in production, but there is already something to see here and there. Against the wall are man-sized payment cards, a project by a street artist with Keytrade Bank on sustainable investment. A cartoonist draws on solar panels from Ecopower and on bricks from Orbix, a Limburg company that uses residual waste from the steel industry and CO2 to make building materials.

Maat brings a lamp. ‘I went to Deceuninck with the designer Axelle Vertommen. They have their own recycling facility and the only waste found there is the filters used to recycle the PVC. Axelle has made lamps with it.’ She laughs. “Art is just a less annoying way to communicate.”

Maat wants to show the richness of circular thinking. It’s not just about recycling. But also about new business models, such as the sharing economy or the idea that you don’t have to buy everything. “We have furniture here from a company that rents out furniture. There will be a light panel from a company that, instead of selling custom-designed light signs, offers them modularly as a service.’

It is also about new technology. On a staircase lies a white coffin, made by a Dutch biotech company from mycelium, the mushroom roots. The coffin decomposes after 45 days. ‘I personally think: if you’re dead, who cares? Good it’s good for the earth. But perhaps not everyone thinks so. That is why we also work with a funeral director from the region. He will include the box in his offer. We have to see if people are open to it. It must remain a choice. You don’t achieve much with a green dictatorship’.

Change clothes

Raised in Brasschaat and with Ghanaian roots, Maat wanted to be a vet as a child. Later, she realized that there was more to do for the environment. At sixteen, she read an article by sustainability guru Gunter Pauli – the former CEO of the green detergent brand Ecover – about the circular economy. ‘I loved it. It was about companies that make fuel from thistles. Available things.’

After her studies in political science, she went on a voluntary internship with, among others, the waste company OVAM, Bond Beter Leefmilieu and the cabinet of Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir. At Syntra, she created courses on circular economy.

“Sometimes people just didn’t show up for an appointment. Others said: naive child, what do you want now? But the no’s just motivated me even more.’

Nina Maat

Initiator behind MUCE

Meanwhile, she organized clothing exchange events. Because ‘if you exchange clothes instead of asking for money, you think better about what you do with it’. Maat muttered into the Fashion Museum and M HKA. “It was all very hip, with DJs and everything, but I saw it bigger than fashion.” She knocked on the door of the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) with a proposal to organize something on each floor. “They thought it was too big. So I just thought: I’ll do it myself’.

It was not an obvious route. Finding grants turned out to be a hellish journey, she eventually found funding through sponsorship deals with companies and received support from the city of Antwerp. Often she also got a lid on her nose. “Sometimes people just didn’t show up for an appointment. Others said: naive child, what do you want now? But the no’s just motivated me even more.’

Used batteries

Maat aims at a wide audience. The ultimate goal is to show that this is not only for privileged people, the typical clique you see at all events, but also ‘for the social neighborhoods of Borgerhout’. “Whether it will work remains to be seen. But I do everything I can to keep it available.’ In other words: not too much text on the panels, a place in the shopping heart of Antwerp and no entrance fee: you pay with discarded batteries or an old mobile phone, which is recycled with Proximus and Bebat.

‘I don’t expect everyone to come out of this tomorrow and change banks or energy suppliers,’ says Maat. ‘But especially now, with corona, the war, the energy crisis, everyone needs alternatives. How is it possible? I want to show that. The circular economy is not perfect. There are also challenges, and we are honest about that. It’s just better if we all think about it together. I will plant that seed.’

It should be a springboard to more. ‘My dream is a permanent museum. I think it is necessary. A place where sustainable solutions are discussed in an accessible way.’

The essence

  • MUCE is a pop-up museum in Antwerp about the circular economy.
  • It is an initiative by 25-year-old Nina Maat.
  • The exhibition can be visited every day throughout October.

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