An artist with something to say about ‘the teachers’ cry’, courage, and Kenyans’ bumbling sense of art: Meet Dickens Otieno, Kenya’s metal weaver par excellence

Mixed media artist Dickens Otieno has been at the Manjano Visual Arts Exhibition in Nairobi March- April 2016.

We talked metal school uniforms, books that don’t open, and why Kenyans are always peering into art pieces looking for a picture they can hold on to. The Godown Arts Centre artist had some good advice for educators and for people too timid to pursue their dream.

School uniforms made of metal cloth…hmmm …might this be the latest innovation for instilling discipline in Kenya’s schoolchildren?

The life-size uniforms—meticulously sewn out of ‘cloth’ woven from strips of recycled tin cans—are among Dicken’s Otieno’s evocative art pieces. The uniforms come complete with sleeveless jumpers, buttons and ties, in school colours to boot. Alliance High School’s greens, Starehe Boys’ blues and reds, and so on.

“This uniform series is about the teachers cry,” Otieno tells me.

“Teachers are not paid well in Kenya and go on strike almost every year demanding better pay. As long as the teacher is not paid well, he or she cannot give a hundred percent.

“And if they don’t teach the children [in the uniforms] well, the kids will not get the skills to develop our country in the future.”

Otieno has also been thinking about the disconnect between ‘A’ grades and a skilled workforce in Kenya:

“The kids are scoring ‘A’s, meaning they are very bright children, and they go to universities and get degrees. But are they up to the challenge of being a doctor or an engineer for this country?”

“Why are all our roads being constructed by the Chinese? It means that our engineers are not up to the challenge.

Otieno shows me another of his artworks, this time a book woven from the same aluminium strips. It has an attractive cover and its metal pages are life-like. But you can’t open it. The book is also part of Otieno’s critique of the education system.

 

“What should the education system offer, and does the book offer it?” he poses. “I want people to think about that.”

Otieno, 36, is the son of a seamstress mother and teacher father from Awendo in Nyanza, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. His choice of art expression — school uniforms, books, the education system— might be the result of these two early influences. But he has done many other pieces dealing with social different issues like love and dating, the law, and alcohol abuse. He tells me, without blinking, that one else in his family is an artist, and we argue for a little while about whether making kitenge dresses, like his mother still does, is art.

Though Otieno had drawn since he was a child and made small toys and cars from bits and pieces he found back in the village, his journey into art as a professional started in his 20s, inspired by two street artists — Otieno Kota and Otieno Gomba. The duo were part of the Maasai Mbili Art Centre , which painted murals in the alleyways of Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera estate, where he then lived with his uncle.

Despite earning an engineering diploma, Otieno had not found a job, because “all the employers wanted was someone with experience.” So he had a lot of time to sit and stare at the street artists working in his neighbourhood. Finally one day, in 2003, he gathered the courage and ask if he could join them as an apprentice.

For the next 6 years, until 2009, Otieno worked with his two namesakes at Maasai Mbili, as a street artist and painter.

“They mentored me well, and I learned from them that you can use found objects to make art. Otieno Kota and Otieno Gomba also opened my eyes to the possibility of earning a living through art. They also taught me how to approach art as a profession.”

He soon started to pursue his side interest in metal crafting, and found that working with metal unleashed a creative talent that was bubbling inside him. He also learned about Al Anatsui and other international artists working with metal, and was inspired by them.

“At first I used to cut up bottle tops and stick them on gunia (sisal sacks). But the bottle tops were very rigid so they used to cut my fingers a lot. And the finished pieces were too heavy,” he says.

Otieno’s eureka moment came unexpectedly.

“Accidentally, one day I found a discarded aluminium can.”

“It felt very light. And when I cut it open I found that it could give me strips that felt like palm leaves, which I could weave like I had seen people do back in the village.

Otieno still remembers it was a colourful can of Redds, a fruity wine popular in Nairobi at the time.

“That’s how the idea of weaving metal came to me.”

With found aluminium cans as his new medium Otieno made many new pieces, which were lighter, more colourful and easier to handle. He started showing his artworks at joint exhibitions in Nairobi. People started to buy his pieces and he received some media attention. He was finally working as a professional artist, and earning a decent enough living and supporting his young family from his art. Finding a studio at the Godown Art Centre allowed him to connect with other artists, and also gave him a good space to work and showcase his work.

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Otieno’s pieces have been featured and sold at leading art shows in Nairobi, including the high-profile Kenya Art Auction in 2015. He was recently commissioned to create art pieces by the historic luxury hotel, Emerson on Hurumzi, in Zanzibar. And an exhibition in Belgium this summer will show Otieno’s work, his first international public appearance.

“Most Kenyans can’t understand how an adult like me can just sit down weaving something for days.”

Yet Otieno is concerned that his work is loved and purchased mostly by foreigners, and that Kenyans still consider artists a curious lot. This, he says, is another outcome of a flawed education system, which lacks art education.

“Most Kenyans can’t understand how an adult like me can just sit down weaving something for days.

“And in art, they always try to look for a picture, because they want to see something they know,” he laughs.

In addition to re-introducing art to schools, Otieno says the marketing of Kenyan and East African art must be stepped up, to tap into the huge global market for African art.

Making his art pieces is a slow and laborious process— a uniform can take up to a month to create. And if you’re not careful, the metal cuts you. But the end result is a work of lasting beauty, out of scrap, or found objects.

This is another life lesson that Otieno hopes his art can pass on.

“I find that very few people are interested in doing what I do, because it’s a really long, slow process.

“But I hope that when people see my work, they will realise that they can do whatever it is they are shying away from doing. Someone might have something they have been putting off … buying time … feeling that the process is too long, too hard, or it’s not accepted in society.

“I hope they get inspiration to go do it, in their own way.”

Photos courtesy of Dickens Otieno, except the last three, taken by Daisy Ouya.

Postscript: Just this week, a major meeting of local and international experts on curriculum development was held, to review the Kenyan education system with a view to align it better with the country’s development challenges. Arts education is set to be re-introduced to the curriculum.

 

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