Jess Atieno

Merging photographs and textiles

the leso (or khanga), a traditional, intricately patterned textile, is central to the culture and history of East Africa. In the nineteenth century, enslaved persons were barred from wearing anything but merikani— plain, unbleached cotton garments. But post-abolition, the leso became a marker of newly gained freedom, a symbol of empowerment and restored identity. Colorful and embellished with proverbs, rich with the possibility of self-expression, lesos are nearly inextricable from Kenyan life.

Jess Atieno—Kenya-born, Nigeria-educated, Chicago-based—knows something about the fragility of place and belonging. In these works, she merges the leso with vintage documentary photographs from East Africa’s colonial era to make evocative mixed-media textile works that attempt to reclaim “representation through iconography and remediation” and reject the objective gaze of colonial-era observation. In her practice, lesos become a medium through which the artist “time-travels” through archival photographs and colonial maps, re-envisioning a narrative of colonialism. Harnessing her own personal experience of place and dispossession, Atieno’s serigraphs and tapestries challenge understandings of place and belonging in postcolonial Africa.

—Eugenia Bell, Art Editor

Black Madonna, 2023
Ibado (Worship) 1, 2023
Feels Like Home, 2023
Habesha (Don't Care), 2023
Subira (Patience), 2023

All images courtesy the artist.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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