Sipho Mabona installing "The Plague" at JANM, 2012

Origami Takes Flight: The Installation Work of Sipho Mabona

Sipho Mabona is one of the most accomplished and respected origami artists in the world.

Sipho Mabona installing "The Plague" at JANM, 2012
Mabona installing The Plague at JANM, 2012, Photo by Michael Dressler

Like many folders of complex origami forms, he starts with square sheets of paper and transforms them into bugs, birds and beasts that are so intricately folded that they often take hours to complete. Without using scissors or glue, he is able to create perfectly proportioned, anatomically correct and artistically exquisite representations of swallows, polar bears, insects and even people. He is not the only artist who does this, as we can see from the other folded figures in the Folding Paper exhibition that is currently at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). Such artists as Robert J. Lang, Brian Chan and Michael G. LaFosse are renowned for their remarkable folded paper depictions of the natural realm.

What makes this Swiss-South African artist different is what he chooses to do and say with his folded paper bugs, birds and beasts. Mabona’s large-scale installations, often comprising many tens of folded creatures arranged in a particular formation, make bold and very timely political and social statements.

His 2010 work Bearly Surviving, which depicts dozens of polar bears crowded together on a shrinking iceberg—all folded individually from squares of white paper—is a poignant sculptural commentary on the damage caused by climate change. Another of his installations depicts a flock of graceful swallows confronted by a glass window; several have hit the glass and have fallen dead on the floor, suggesting a tragic collision of the human and natural realms.

Bearly Surviving by Sipho Mabona, 2010
Bearly Surviving by Sipho Mabona, 2010, Photo by Sipho Mabona


His site-specific installation The Plague, which is currently on view at JANM, contains an even more potent political message. A total 144 locusts take form out of sheets of dollar bills and swarm the gallery, evoking the Biblical plague that was inflicted on humans who had behaved badly.

The Plague by Sipho Mabona, 2012
The Plague, 2012, JANM. Photo by Sipho Mabona.

According to Mabona, the transformation of money into locusts is a reference to the large, multi-national investment corporations that take over smaller companies throughout the world and then discard them for a quick profit. In German-speaking Europe, such corporations, usually foreign, have recently been referred to as Heuschrecken, or locusts, spreading in swarms and greedily devouring local businesses. In 2011, he decided that it was this concept that he wanted to depict in his next installation. Since the US dollar bill has become the global symbol of capitalism, he contacted the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing and ordered sheets of uncut dollar bills for his project. He then flew out to New York to pick them up, as the Bureau won’t send uncut bills overseas.

Sipho Mabona folding sheets of US dollar bills at JANM, March 2010
Mabona folding sheets of US dollar bills at JANM, March 2010. Photo by Meher McArthur.

In October 2011, he began folding his locusts out of squares measuring 7 by 3 bills each. Each locust took approximately 5 hours to fold, and is cleverly designed so that George Washington’s head appears on the wings and upper back, and the phrase “In God We Trust” runs across their foreheads. Mabona was careful to study not only the anatomy of these voracious insects but also their swarming formation; they all fly in the same direction at once. A week before the exhibition opened at JANM, Mabona began installing the piece, attaching each locust to a plastic thread that stretches up to the 35-foot high ceiling and then down to the floor. The effect is quite menacing. It is easy to forget that these creatures are folded out of paper.

Mabona is fascinated by the transformational aspect of origami, the potential to fold a flat square of paper into any form. The concept of transformation plays a large part in The Plague; dollar bills are morphed into a sinister plague of destructive insects. “Although a locust swarm is scary,” says Mabona, “where there is the ability to transform, there is hope. In origami, paper is folded into forms like these locusts, but the forms can be unfolded again. The creases will remain, but the paper can be folded again into something else—perhaps butterflies.”

To see more of Mabona’s work, see

Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami is on display through August 26, 2012. Visit the exhibition site for more details, related programs, and origami resources:

By Meher McArthur
Curator of Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami