Art

A sculptor weaving scrap metal

scrap

An installation by Dickens Otieno, the ‘Mabati Tailor’, at the Circle Art Gallery on December 11, 2020. The installation which consists of large woven wall hangings and free standing garment structures, will be on display until December 22, 2020. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

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Summary

  • Dickens Otieno was meant to be an engineer, according to his father’s dream.
  • But this Kenyan sculptor has taken after his mother, a gifted, hard-working seamstress, instead.
  • Dickens studied engineering for a time, but he gave it up to be a full-time artist.

Dickens Otieno was meant to be an engineer, according to his father’s dream. But this Kenyan sculptor has taken after his mother, a gifted, hard-working seamstress, instead.

Dickens studied engineering for a time, but he gave it up to be a full-time artist. Nonetheless, he has found that study useful as he creates sculptures requiring internal ‘engineering’ in the form of metal wireframes that serve as skeletons to give his jackets, trousers, and gowns the regal statuesque stance that enhance the dignity of each design.

Currently, having his first one-man exhibition at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, Dickens has balanced his show between his shapely tapestries and his sculptures, some the size you might want to try on, others, miniatures that might otherwise appeal to little people. What is most remarkable about his art is that he creates his own ‘fabric’ by hand, out of aluminium (and occasionally laminated paper) which he first shreds and then meticulously weaves into garments or floor-to-ceiling wall hangings.

Dickens’ tapestries might call to mind ones more monumentally made by the acclaimed West African artist, El Anatsui, since both men work and weave in scrap metal. But Dickens is no imitator. He’s been creating scrap metal ‘fabric’ for nearly two decades, long before he had ever heard of the Ghanaian artist.

But what makes Dickens’ art so special is the precision with which he creates his metallic ‘threads’ and perfectly aligned weaves. Having started his career with limited funds, he began by working with materials most accessible to him, namely used beer and soda cans which are still his basic tools of the trade. It is these that he first flattens, then carefully transforms into his sculptures and tapestries. For his paper sculpture, he also recycles, using glossy magazines or newspapers which he first paints, then laminates, and finally slices into sturdy paper threads and weaves similarly to what he does with his slender scrap metal 'yarns'.

All the works in his Circle Art show were created this year, during the lockdown when he either stayed close to home or worked some days in his studio at the GoDown’s new artists’ studios in Nairobi’s Kilimani. Dicken’s show opened on November 26 and will run-up to December 22.

In the meantime, at the opening, Dickens admitted to one of his admirers that he preferred creating formal wear, anything from evening gowns to military men’s uniforms.

These were the sorts of clothes that he grew up watching his mother make. She, like he, was meticulous about her creations. Pointing to the sewing machine at the entrance of the exhibition, Dickens says he personally never works with a sewing machine, despite his stitches invariably looking straight and tailored.

“The sewing machine was my mother’s. It’s here because I think of this show as an installation dedicated to her,” says the artist, implying the machine is there to pay homage to her legacy.

Dickens’ art has been exhibited everywhere from Nottingham and Paris to Cape Town and Dubai and Italy.

One of Dickens’ pieces that l found most fascinating is a ‘triptych’ of three tall, thin tapestries which he calls ‘skyscrapers’ since they hang side by side, each with square open spaces carefully aligned. “No, they do not each stand-alone,” he tells BDLife.

“They are one-piece, but like skyscrapers in big cities, they stand side by side.” The window cut-outs add interest to the piece that hangs about seven feet from top to bottom.