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.

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Living textiles

How human hands can turn a cotton boll or silk cocoon into thread, and then turn that thread into cloth is, to me, the epitome of ingenuity. And I’m intrigued by hand-decoration and embellishment of cloth, which breathes life into fabric and turns it into a work of art and beauty.

As a huge fan of handcrafted textiles, I’ve been consciously and unconsciously collecting functional and decorative pieces for nearly two decades.

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A hatbox of beauty, joy and healing: Meet Lali Heath, Kenya’s own couture milliner

Through her stunning creations, Lali Heath is bringing her lucky customers the smile and self-confidence that comes from crowning your look with a beautiful, impeccably crafted hat. And Lali herself is experiencing the power of handcraft to calm a distressed mind.

I caught up with Lali, exhibiting under her label, Lali Heath Millinery, at a Christmas craft fair in Nairobi last December.

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Crocheting cartridges: Dinah Cele weaves up one beautiful solution to e-waste

Meet Dinah Sibongile Cele, an unassuming Durbanite who is upcycling used printer tape into useful and decorative homewares and accessories.

Dinah never set out to be an eco-warrior. But when she was widowed at age 40, in 1998, she had to find a job—and quick— to sustain her two school-going daughters. She took up the first job she could find, working as a printing assistant at a small printing firm in Durban.

The company, where she still works, was generating a good amount of waste printer cartridges, and one day Dinah looked inside one.

She was intrigued by what she saw: perfect rolls of multicolored tape lay inside. The colours were vibrant; CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—and the tape was coiled neatly in an endlessly repetitive pattern. She touched it and tugged at it.

“It could bend like this and like that. This thing is the same as plastic!” thought Dinah.

She asked her employer if she could take some of that tape home, and they were happy to oblige.

Now Dinah’s mother had always woven and crocheted. Basketry is famous among her tribe, the Zulu people of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Zulu women make their beautiful baskets mostly from the Ilala palm and the bark of ncebe, a wild banana. The baskets’ geometric patterns have meanings, with masculine and feminine symbols that can tell a story to the trained eye. These baskets have a super-tight weave, and besides storing and carrying grain, they are used to carry liquids like umkhomboti, a traditional Zulu beer.

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Boaz Otieno, the orutu magician

Boaz Otieno Akech’s fingers dance across the orutu’s taut single string. With a simple sisal bow moving deftly along the length of the traditional Kenyan fiddle, he produces a perfectly controlled sound—now lilting, now wailing—that stirs deep into your soul. The orutu is a Luo traditional instrument, used in the fast-paced Ohangla genre of Luo music.

Boaz Otieno Akech, Orutu maestro. Photo by Daisy Ouya
Boaz Otieno Akech, Orutu maestro. Photo by Daisy Ouya

This Ohangla master has been playing since he was 7. It drove his mother to distraction—she would have preferred that her son focus his energies on his studies. To teach him a lesson, one day she took his orutu and smashed it to pieces.

But fate had other plans for the young Boaz.

He tells me—without a hint of irony— that from that day on whenever he went to school, his eyesight would get blurry until after some time he could no longer see what was on the blackboard.

“My eyes would be open but I couldn’t see. I was taken to doctor after doctor to no avail. The family cow was sold to pay for my treatment but my eyes didn’t get any better.

“Then a religious man came with some special water and washed my eyes with it, and prayed for me. After 4 days I could see again. I was sent back to school and the mysterious disease came back. That’s when I decided I was not going back to school—it was my eyesight or an education.”

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