ART: Inside us all with an eye on the stars

Friday August 23 2019

'Portal' by Jessica Atieno. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


I’m told that the double helix of DNA can also be found in a blade of grass and is replicated in some constellations.

Which means that while the building block of life is within us at a microscopic level the same shape expands to a size greater than the planet we live on.

So by looking into ourselves we are also looking at the universe; a stylish proposition that works on many levels, both secular and religious.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it much better as “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age,” and that was written in 1933, some 20 years before the twisted ladder structure of DNA was identified.

It neatly paraphrases the argument articulated by Kenyan artist Jessica Atieno in her solo exhibition of etchings, which is based on the myriad and changing patterns of the cells within our bodies, that looking within ourselves is an allegory for our place in society and the universe.

The title of her show, To stand on a grain of wheat, presents us as the single cell or grain (it is said that a grain of wheat will withstand our weight) and proposes we can view ourselves as part of a mass, one grain of an ear of a stalk of a waving field of wheat. One of many billions, in fact.


Whichever metaphor you like — internal cell or external grain — Atieno’s etchings present us with series of involving patterns, which the artist has abstracted after research on the internet and with the help of a friend, a cell pathologist with a store of slides.

From these, Atieno condensed or amplified the cell structures that lie at the heart of our functioning.

Her exhibition is her first solo show purely of prints — there are 18 etchings at the Red Hill Art Gallery to the west of Nairobi, until the end of September — all but four based on human cell patterns.

They are a natural development of her earlier work, centred on figure drawings. First you see the outside; now you peep within.

Yet these images are not unfamiliar.

Anyone who has watched a medics programme on TV will have seen this sort of thing.

While some of the cells seem static or able to move only at glacial speed across the etching plate, others jostle excitedly around each other.

In some, Portal for example, it looks as though planets are colliding, adding strength to the artist’s thesis that the world is one, from cell to galaxy.

Images that are familiar yes, but made meticulous and commanding attention.

The luminosity and volume of the cells are particularly well realised.

What is new, outside the screen projections common in medical schools, is their scale.

Here the cells are not slipping and bubbling beneath a microscope, but are presented up to a handsome 98cm by 50cm; staying still for us to study and enjoy and making us consider perhaps their — and our — roles in the nature of things. At least, that is the artist’s hope.

There are four exceptions to this focus on cells.

Three are of figures relating to the cells, while the fourth is, to my taste, the most interesting print in the exhibition.

Simply Untitled, it is among the last of the series and looks at first sight like a mass of tagliatelle, each strand made of around five parallel scored lines.

Here Atieno continues the theme of the cells but develops it with a structure of her own creation; lines within lines, multiplied to make the whole.

This work, with its interplay of linear tensions, has a vitality that vibrates before the eye, as though the cells we have seen in the other etchings are now creating their own life force on the wall.

To make her prints Atieno used the cylinder press that was at the Kuona Trust studios, but has since been moved to the Maasai Mbili workshop in Kibera.

Made with a needle on sheets of plexigass—cheaper that the traditional copper—many of the etchings were later hand coloured with a light acrylic wash; pale lemon being a favourite tint.

On some, however, a darker ochre was achieved by re-inking the plate and running it through the press again, a do-or-die process calling for accurate registration, a steady nerve and a willingness to see a few good first state proofs go to waste.

This rate of attrition probably explains the small editions of these prints; five is the maximum, the average is three, while the Untitled linear piece is the only one of its kind, apart from possible artist’s proofs.

Some of the pieces feature both techniques, hand colouring and re-inking.

In spite of the risks, or maybe because of them, etching seems to suit Atieno.

Whether working on a small scale, as in Sala ya toba (A sincere prayer) at 20cm by 14cm, or large as in Harvest 1 at 150cm by 53cm, she can sustain the strength of line needed to maintain the impact of her imagery and the care required to produce these immaculate proofs.


'Sala ya toba' by Jessica Atieno. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG