Hand-stitched sculptures: Dickens tracks the paths of creatures large and small


Dickens Otieno's school uniform made with shredded aluminium cans, handwoven on galvanised steel mesh at Circle Art Gallery on December 10, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

Long before he had ever heard of the Nigeria-based Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui, Dickens Otieno was busy flattening metal bottle tops and making them into hand-stitched sculptures.

Even so, Dickens’ sculptures were qualitatively different from those of the acclaimed West African artist. He didn’t simply stitch his bottle tops together to create flattened tapestries. He cut his bottle tops and metal tins of Kimbo and Tusker beer into metallic threads that he wove into new fabrics, which he used to create his metallic fashions.

“I was starting from scratch, not having funds to buy art materials, so I decided to make my own,” he told BDLife a few days after his show opened on November 25.

Having a mother who was a seamstress and often created her own clothing designs from scratch, her work had a profound impact on him. He studied mechanical engineering at the polytechnic. But when he came to Nairobi looking for work, he couldn’t find it. Instead, he found the original Maasai Mbili, Kota Otieno and Gomba Otieno (not relations).


Dickens Otieno's Waves (Oscillations) at Circle Art Gallery on December 10, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

“Kota became my mentor in shifting my interest from painting to sculpture,” Dickens recalls.

“It was his use of recycled trash that inspired me to start doing the same.”

Currently, his metallic sculptures and three-dimensional tapestries are on display at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi. Entitled Trails, they mainly reflect a mix of Dickens’ memories and recent journeys back and forth between Nairobi and his home in Migori County. Travelling by bus gave him many hours to take in the landscapes, and views that inspired the creation of tapestries like Pe-Hills Seasons and Cow Tracks.


Dickens Otieno's Untitled (Pink dots) at Circle Art Gallery on December 10, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

But Trails, his second solo exhibition at Circle doesn’t refer exclusively to his treks. It also refers to the assorted trails that he saw in rural areas, both artificial and animal-made. His tapestries track the artificial trails of ‘Climbers’ and a Hiker, while he also saw ‘Cow Tracks’ and the largest tapestry out of the 13 in the show, his panya Routes. It’s a monumental piece (3.11 x 5.93 metres) and it reveals just how far the artist has come.

When we first met Dickens almost 15 years ago, his metallic sculptures were already gems of creativity. But they were much smaller and more illustrative of the role his mother had played in his art insofar as his hand-woven garments were mainly school uniform-styled outfits.

In his Trails exhibition, he has three sets of fashionable outfits, all colourful, perfectly contoured, and shimmering despite Dickens’ still using recycled metals that were ‘found objects’ before he sliced them into threads, then wove by hand into fabric, and finally constructed into gorgeous garments that he designed.

Evidence of Dickens the designer is the tapestry entitled Sketchbook page, Uniform Series. It’s a work, which explains part of his process and the ‘trail’ that he’s travelled as he’s gone on to become the masterful sculptor he is today.

Back on his western Kenya trek, Dickens spent time at the lake since Lake Victoria also made a profound impression on him as a child. His love for her waters is reflected in the tapestry, Waves (Oscillations). Designed in his 3-D sculptural format, he carefully selected the colours of aluminium cans (blue and white), which are shredded and then stitched onto steel mesh.

Nature generally is an important feature of his art as seen in works like ‘Darkened Clouds’ and Pe-Hills Seasons. Clouds is particularly ambitious since it’s a diptych that tells the story of the sky with its blue hue darkened by grey clouds foreshadowing the storm to come.


Dickens Otieno, a sculptor showcasing his works at Circle Art Gallery until early January. PHOTO | POOL

Initially, Dickens worked alone, which is how I found him working at The GoDown Art more than a decade ago. He immediately impressed me with his inventive practice which was creating colourful material that he would thereafter use to design his garments.

Initially, those garments were relatively small, as if made like a child’s school uniform. They reflected the artist’s modesty. He was still working on an experimental basis. But gradually, as he gained assurance of the direction in which he wanted to go, his designs diversified and his garments got bigger, bolder and still more shapely.

Of late, Dickens has been encouraged to create more tapestries. Trails is a sign that he listened to that voice which compelled him to tell stories about the land, the light, and the waters of the Lake with glorious wall hangings. Dickens was one of only four Kenyans to display their art at the prestigious 2022 Venice Biennale in the Kenya Pavilion.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.