Etchings as Visual Poetry



As she bid us farewell for the next two years while she studies art at the influential Chicago School of the Art Institute, Jess Atieno left us with a gift.

Her first solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery, ‘To stand on a Grain of Wheat’ opened last Sunday, just before she departed for the US.

Her timing could not have been better. Her latest collection of delicate etchings was a revelation. It is a show that strikes one with a similar impact as the first solo exhibition that she had back in 2015 entitled ‘Full Frontal’. That one featured women shaped in all sizes and shamelessly bearing their bodies in all their natural glory. It was also a show that marked Jess as being an artist who had a clear and courageous visual voice.

She has been experimenting with various techniques, multimedia and processes ever since. But her current show seems to suggest that she’s found an artistic medium of expression that’s well suited to give her the freedom to say and do what she wants artistically.

Etching is the newfound technique that Jess encountered while in an art residency at the Hyde Park art Centre a year and a half ago. That is the skill she has been practicing and perfecting ever since, producing among other things, the collection of almost 20 first (or second) edition prints which are up at Red Hill.

Grouped in series of two or three like-minded prints (with a few solo images), all but three have been crafted in the last few months. Those three were created last year after Jess read Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s marvellous multigenerational book, ‘Kintu’. “I was inspired by the story,” says Jess whose trio of Kintu etchings are the only ones featuring human faces, each of which has eyes that have a penetrating gaze. But even in these three, one can get an inkling of the direction she is heading, which is towards the organic, abstract and evocative. The remainder of works in her exhibition include meticulously etched prints, which Jess says still reflect her fascination for the human body. Only now, she has inspired by internal aspects of the bodily form, both the mental and the physical. This is apparently why her prints seem strikingly cellular and organic.

It’s almost as if she’d gazed through an electron microscope and seen scads of cells and platelets, some of which are spherical in form, others oval, others more obtuse. But Jess says she’s never looked through a microscope, although she’s not unfamiliar with anatomical elements of the most minuscule.

Nonetheless, her designs seem almost improvisational. It’s as if she’d been delighted to doodle on Perspex (plexiglass) plates using a needlelike metal ‘pen’ which has given her the means to control her lines and designs with a delicacy which is carefully refined.

Each plate produces no more than three prints. However, in each cluster of three, the first one is striking for its cellular black and white clarity. The second and third etchings are denser, more deeply drawn and detailed.

But there is something in them resembling the first one of the three. That is because Jess has etched other plates which she then uses to print atop the initial design. The effect is fascinating.

One must look deeply into the denser works in order to find the original etching which is now embedded and transformed into a wholly new work of art.

Yet the etching and printmaking techniques are not nearly so straightforward as this. In fact, one can see how they have evolved and subtly morphed as one moves from cluster to cluster.

But the more one looks carefully at Jess’ art, one has to appreciate how varied her etchings are. There is one in particular, entitled ‘Kuliko Maji’ that contains not a single spherical form. Instead, she’s created undulating images that come alive with a vibrancy that begs to be identified not as abstract, but as beautiful African dancers who Jess captures coincidentally on her page.

Then again, the beauty of abstract art is that one can read anything or nothing into it. In the case of ‘Standing on a Grain of Wheat’, at least a portion of Jess’s etchings seem to emerge from that segment of the human psyche known as the subconscious.

It’s the realm often associated with the spiritual; it is also from where the finest poetry derives. So if one can see the poetic in visual art, then Jess’s etchings are pure visual poetry.