Shhh! We are deep in a silent conversation

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EASilent2909hgA keen observer with an eye for detail, the expressions, gestures and confidential glances of most conversations are captured in her work.

If you fancy a chat you could do worse than talk to the sculptor Maggie Otieno.

For she likes nothing better than a good conversation, whether it is enjoying the exchanges herself or standing on the sidelines watching others nattering away. So much so in fact that for the past few years conversations have formed the bulk of her work.

Whether directly, as groups of heads made of welded steel engrossed in discussion, or as more subtle pieces alluding to a purely internal dialogue, Otieno’s sculptures are a testament to the niceties — and the power — of communication.

A keen observer with an eye for detail, the expressions, gestures and confidential glances of most conversations are captured in her work.

You may already have seen Otieno’s latest public installation, at the Garden City Mall off the Thika superhighway in Nairobi. Called Gatekeepers, the eight figures made of welded steel and looking for all the world like upright central heating ducts with faces, stand sentinel on a patch of grass against a wall near the entrance to the mall.

Engrossed in their huddled convention, they welcome visitors with barely a glance.

Drivers and their passengers may well wonder what on earth they are talking about. I would like to think it is something deep and worthy of such a commemoration but, for all I know it could well be about the parking charges, or the price of burgers and chips.
More private exchanges can be seen in Otieno’s current exhibition at a new space in Karen.

The Little Gallery, a converted garage attached to the Esprit Gallery (more a craft shop, really) off Nandi Road, has been opened by William Ndwiga and follows his pop up exhibitions in people’s gardens in Nairobi — a middle-class version of collecting gnomes — and a new gallery within a shopping mall in Kisumu.

It is a brave and welcome effort, and the Otieno exhibition is its opener. Called Silent Conversations, it will run until November 20.

On the walls of this small but smart white space are eight steel sculptures, each set on wood, plus one large hanging made of 79 panels of carved and pierced MDF. It should have been 80, but at the time I saw it one was still to arrive.

Called All My Thoughts, it is being sold in groups of four. They need to be chosen carefully to avoid providing a less impressive experience than the sculpture as seen on the gallery wall.

The panels embody the silent conversations the artist has with herself and her materials (“Hello, little piece of wood…”) as she creates the sculpture, discarding and adding at her discretion.

The surface of each small panel (18cm square) has been gouged, reminding me of the wrinkles on the surface of the brain and of one primary school teacher who told us that every time we had a thought — any thought — it left a wrinkle. This traumatised half the class as we all feared our brains would turn into prunes.

Holes within the panels represent thought balloons and cogs and gears stuck onto the surface do duty as metaphors for the machinery that generates thought.

Can prunes think? It worried me and some of my classmates for quite a while.

The East African


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