An unusual exhibition opening in Footscray this week has been a long tine in the making.

The Rich Forks, by Yarraville activist and visual artist Van T Rudd, highlights extreme wealth inequality by displaying luxury hotel dinner forks that have been used by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.

The exhibition offers plenty of food for thought from 40 forks so far collected in a project spanning more than 15 years.

Unwashed forks used by Hillary Clinton, Prince Harry, James Packer and Rupert Murdoch will be on display, drawn from a collection that also includes forks used by John Howard, Sepp Blatter, Richard Branson and Clive Palmer.

Rudd, the nephew of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, says the purloining was born of frustration and was never intended to lead to an exhibition.

“It began in the workplace and a job I had in the late ’90s,” he said. “I was a waiter, and like many others in the industry I was on the minimum wage, working at these big corporate functions … I would be serving these wealthy people and be ordered around.”

Rudd remains tight-lipped as to the process for amassing his fork collection, other than to say it relies on “networking” with people working in the service industry.

The artist, no stranger to making pointed political commentary, believes the “reverse looting” of the forks pales into insignificance compared to the trillions of misappropriated dollars recently revealed in the Panama Papers.

Rudd says the exhibition space will be used to highlight the growing gap between the rich and poor and the damage caused to society by the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

“I like that the forks work as a conduit or symbol of a much bigger systemic problem of injustice, that’s why it’s important that the context is told,” he said.

“On the one hand the fork is just a material object but there is also a way in which the class interests come in and I think this exhibition is an extension of that idea.”

Rudd carefully chose Footscray Community Arts Centre as the site of his first exhibition, both for its location and history of activism.

“Lots of poor people from poorer suburbs in the west have been exploited in serving the interests of the rich,” he said.

The Rich Forks opens at the FCAC Gabriel Gallery at 6pm on Thursday, May 5. Details: www.facebook.com/TheRichForks