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In this week's episode, LaChaun speaks with one of our artists in residence Kesiena Onosigho. Through the study of materials and patterns, Kesiena intuitively explores textiles and a range of media to create atmospheric abstractions focused on intersectionality, as coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, engaging in themes of social & environmental justice. Kesiena's thought-provoking mixed-media collages and installations are informed by her lived experiences, curiosity, and the historic influence on arts & crafts from people within the African Diaspora. Every work embodies her deep fascination with research, materiality, and process and comes to life through her studio and innovative practice where she conjures up her own methods & tools to produce symbolic forms through the medium of foraged items, fiber types that are layered and fused to form abstract compositions. In contrast to the abstraction, Kesiena engages in the interplay of poetic titles to challenge an audience to discover significance in unconventional places, promote beauty in the already existing, and challenge the viewer's preconceived notions of material and context.
Kesiena's goal is to foster rich dialogue and participate in acts of consciousness-raising, highlighting contributions to sustainability and craft from people in the African Diaspora, whose narratives are more complex, nuanced, and abundant than their traditional representations. Looking to expand the dialogue of Blackness outside of the physical and visual structures of figurative painting, Kesiena energetically and unapologetically explores and confronts aesthetic perceptions. We are so fortunate to have her as an artist in residence as well as a guest on the podcast this week.
Kesiena Onosigho, the artist
Kesiena Onosigho’s artwork
Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.
LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.
Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, Gist Yarn & Fiber.
LaChaun Moore: Hello. Hi, everyone. In this week’s episode I’m speaking with one of our amazing artists in residence, Kesiena. Through the study of materials and patterns, Kesiena intuitively explores textiles and a range of media to create atmospheric abstractions focused on intersectionality, as coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, engaging in themes of social and environmental justice. Kesiena’s thought provoking mixed media collages and installations are informed by her lived experiences, curiosity, and the historic influence on arts and craft from people within the African Diaspora. And we are so grateful to have her as an artist in residence as well as on the podcast today.
Hello, Kesiena. Welcome.
Kesiena Onosigho: Thanks for having me, LaChaun.
LaChaun Moore: It is a pleasure. Can you start out by introducing yourself and telling us how you started working in the wonderful world of textiles?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah, so it’s such an interesting journey, so I’m a textile artist is how I identify. My background is in fashion design, but how I really got into textiles was I always had an interest, from like a really young age, from textiles. So, I was raised by a single mom, but my father is Nigerian, and so when he would visit us, he would bring textiles from Nigeria back, and it really sparked an interest for me at a really young age. And then even growing up, there was just always such an interest. I come from a very matriarchal family, so I have a lot of sisters. I have three sisters, and a mom, and a lot of aunts, and all of them would either knit, or crochet, or sew at some point. Just very craft-driven in that sense.
And so, that’s really what led me on my textile journey, those experiences early on.
LaChaun Moore: Do you feel like being introduced to textiles that early is what kind of led you into being a mixed media artist? Because you work with so many different forms of textile and I guess you could say art making.
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. It’s really funny. I gave the shortened versions of what I am. I mean, yeah, I identify in a lot of ways because I feel like I am a textile artist. I’m a mixed media artist. I’m also a natural dyer. And I’m also an educator, so yeah, I did simplify a little bit before. But yeah, so the mixed media part comes from… It’s really interesting, so none of my family is professionally artists. I think I have a lot of creative people and creative thinkers in my family, but none of them took fashion design or any type of creative path. So, I think that my sense of the mixed media, where it comes in is I have a lot of vast different interests, and it’s like me trying to combine them all together.
Even when I was younger, I was always outside. I really loved nature really early on to the point where everybody thought I was gonna go into the sciences because I just loved being outside, collecting bugs, all of the book I was reading, all of the programs I’d watch on TV was like Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, that kind of stuff, and I was always really into it. So, in high school I started taking environmental classes, and I remember trying to again match my interests of environmentalism with fashion design, and I had in high school discovered sustainable fashion quite early, or at that time what fashion was calling sustainable fashion. And so, by the time I moved to New York, so I’m originally from Reno, Nevada, and by the time I moved to New York to go to school, I went to Parsons, so I took a lot of sustainable fashion classes at the time.
I kind of fell into knitting as a practice. Everybody said like, “Oh, you’re such a strong knitter,” even though I really did do work with wovens, as well. But again, I was just trying to mix and match these different things, and that’s where the mixed media comes in, is just trying to combine all these different ideas. And I’m very experimental in my process, and so that allows me to be quite open with the process and the research part of it, which I’m really drawn to, of art making and craft making. Yeah. That’s where that comes from, I think.
And it’s also I didn’t have traditional artists or creative people in my family lineage, basically, that I know of. I mean, I know there’s a lot of creatives in my family. So, I think like my mom is a community organizer. She’s a social worker and a community organizer and that’s where that influence comes from in my work, so I do do a lot of social practice. Education is really important in my practice. And I know I was inspired by that from her.
LaChaun Moore: That’s beautiful. It’s interesting you say that because I think about that too when I think about how I came into fashion, and textiles, and fibers, and weaving. When I was a kid, my mom and my grandmother were always sewing. I remember I used to step on sewing needles. I still have my first grade graduation dress that my mom made. We used to… I mean, my mom used to make so, so much of our clothes, but then she stopped after a while and she doesn’t sew anymore, but I still have blankets that my grandmother crocheted. But even then, they didn’t really draw the connection of that inspiring me early on to now, because when they were doing it it was really about survival. It was about finding the clothes that they wanted us to wear and also being resourceful.
You know, like my mom’s wedding dress was made by my aunt, and it was gorgeous. It looked like it came from a catalog. Even the… can’t think of what it’s called now. But the thing that you wear on your head.
Kesiena Onosigho: Oh, like a headwrap? Or… Yeah. It’s interesting too that you’re saying this, because for me, that’s like the definition of sustainability, is like because they’re doing it so beautifully, but in a way that it is… It’s coming from resources. It’s coming from surviving. That’s what sustainability to me actually is. It’s to sustain. So, I think that’s really beautiful, but yeah, I had a similar, like my… I used to look at old pictures of my great aunts and stuff. My mom’s like, “Actually, I made that. Actually, she made that.” And I’m like, “This is the most well-made clothes that I’ve ever seen. It’s beautifully made. The fit is amazing.” And yeah, I’ve had a lot of experiences.
My mom was like, “Oh, I would have gone into fashion design. I just didn’t realize it was a career path.” Yeah. It’s an interesting conversation, for sure.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. And similarly to you, as well, I also went to Parsons, and I spoke about this in the episode that will air before this one, about how going to school kind of awakened something in me that did make me move in the direction of being mixed media and interdisciplinary. Can you speak a little bit more about your experience in school and that process of learning, and picking things up, and how you sort of narrowed it down to the core of principles and materials that you work with today?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s interesting, so my experience at Parsons was… I think it was traditional in a sense, but it was like once I had moved to New York, I moved to New York. I didn’t go home and visit a lot because I had to work, because I didn’t have money, and I couldn’t really afford it. I had a lot of student loans that I took out. So, Parsons as a private school is a really wealthy school, so there are a lot of students, so my experience was very different than a lot of the students I went to school with, because I was always working. I was always interning outside of school, as well. And so, I think that made me really hyper focused on the things that I wanted to focus on when I was in school.
At the time I went to Parsons, I graduated in 2011. I was supposed to graduate in 2010, but I had to take a year off because I just couldn’t afford it. And so, when I came to school, I was really focused on a lot of the academic classes. I’ve always been strong academically in school to the point where I got a little scholarship called the Chase Scholars Program, which was supposed to be like more smaller classes, and more academically geared, and so I’ve always just really been into the academic classes. Those elective classes I really loved. And so, a lot of them were… Parsons is partnered with the New School, so a lot of them are really politically driven, or socially driven, which I loved those classes. I took so many sustainable design just in general classes and a lot of art classes, museum classes, things like that. Which is hilarious, because I was supposed to be in fashion design, but I have this other really strong sense of love of these other kind of classes I’m taking, which I think really speaks to my art practice as I got out of school.
But definitely in terms of the fashion design part of it, I was one of the few students who had a really deep interest in textiles in general. I was like wanting to know the weave, I was wanting to know the fiber. A lot of the students who I went to school with didn’t care about that. It was more about color or silhouette, and I was really into the fiber, and I was really into figuring out what this means.
And I had learned to knit when I was 16 and it became an obsession. It was something that I never stopped. By the time I got into school I was really knitting a lot, trying to incorporate knitwear into my collections, trying to really focus on basically like textiles, so yeah, that just always deepened. And then me trying to combine, again, these interests from the academics, or things I was learning in those elective classes with my craft making, my fashion making, and so a lot of my pieces during that time were very more art driven than… It was very craft driven during that time I think in terms of what I was making for my senior thesis and things.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. I get what you’re saying. You’re kind of pointing to the fact that Parsons is this really big, well-known fashion school, and a lot of the students are more industry driven, and more about all of the different facets of fashion, and there isn’t as much of an emphasis on fiber, textile, even sustainability, as much as it is color, silhouette, and designing. It’s more about you be the designer. And I think over the past few years it’s changed where people are starting to think more about the supply chain, and where things come from, and the implications of using certain materials, and certain silhouettes, or you know, it’s very much evolved from that, from the very early ideal fashion.
I definitely see how you might have felt in that experience and how you came to working in the way that you do. I think it’s also just so beautiful because to me, you’re expressing allowing yourself the room to grow, to grow into your craft, to grow into your practice, to grow into the artist that you are. It’s really inspiring to hear you kind of talk through that.
Kesiena Onosigho: Oh, thanks. Yeah. It’s interesting, too, because I think back about my time at Parsons. I definitely think out of the schools, Parsons was a good fit for me in the sense that it allowed me to-
LaChaun Moore: Experiment?
Kesiena Onosigho: To experiment, and I was really… I really liked taking the New School classes. So, again, I think I derived a lot more academically than I maybe did in my fashion classes because they were so… I mean, when I went to school, it was still old school Parsons, and what I mean by that, it was like it was Tim Gunn’s last year. There was a very set curriculum that you had to do a foundation year, you had to take the way the classes were driven, and I know those have changed over time to allow a lot more experimentation, because I did feel a little bit stifled sometimes because I wasn’t allowed to experiment because it was so structured.
I remember my freshman year, they still had… My freshman year they had like an advisor, and you had to go talk to the advisor. You would get sent to the advisor if you were doing badly in your classes maybe, and I went to the advisor, because I was sent to her from one of my teachers, and she was like, “Your time management’s off. You have to plan your 15 minutes. Every 15 minutes, you have to plan.” And it was like it was a very old school way of fashion, which is definitely changed and is allowed more, but Parsons used to be so structured. Like it used to be such a different thing than what it was now.
And I was like I’m in the few years where it was shifting, so you had, again, my freshman year, or not my freshman. My sophomore year, because freshman year was foundation, which they don’t even do anymore. But that sophomore year, like getting sent to the advisor to be like, “Your time management’s off,” when it was like it wasn’t a time management issue. I just think I wasn’t taking to some of the classes as well. Because academically I was like that’s where all of my like… Yeah. I thrived there.
So, it’s just a funny thing to see how much the industry has changed, which I think it was needed, but it’s also interesting to see how people can kind of be in these systems. I still find it was the good fit in terms of the different fashion and art schools, but still buck the system a little bit or want to push back a little bit more, which is my personality, which is why I think like… Yeah. It worked.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. Absolutely. And I’m curious if through all of this exploration you have a fiber making medium that you’re most drawn to.
Kesiena Onosigho: It’s so interesting because I think it shifts. But I can say there’s two that I feel so strongly about, and when I learned them it was the same way, so I think knitting is one of them. I learned from my great aunt how to knit, and when I learned, people usually find it as a relaxing thing to do. It was an obsession. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t put it down. I just wanted to get better. I just wanted to learn. And my sisters were making fun of me because I was obsessed. And I just… I really took to it, and it continued, and even as I navigated the fashion industry after school, I’ve gotten mostly knitwear jobs or knit specialization jobs, and it’s like really something that I feel really strong in, and I think there’s really something really interesting about it, like how much you can push it, how many different forms it can take. At the end of the day, it’s all about fiber and loops, which I love.
And then when I learned natural dyeing in 2014, I had the exact same feeling where I was obsessed. I just couldn’t… It’s just like magic. I couldn’t stop. And so, I think out of all of the fiber mediums, those two I really respond, love to engage with, especially in my work, because I think it’s interesting to take these kind of craft-driven forms into an artistic context. I think there’s a lot of interesting things there.
But yeah, but overall, I’m a textile person. I love weaving. I love spinning yarn. I do spinning yarn not as much, maybe out of a lot of things, that’s maybe the least, but I definitely do do it. Yeah. Tufting, rug making, I just also love researching craft traditions. Yeah, so what about you, LaChaun? Because you do so much too.
LaChaun Moore: Yes. Oh, man. Switching the question on me. My favorite… So, I think every type of fiber making art I think has its role in my practice. I tend to try to put different versions of everything in one thing because my brain sometimes… I’ll start doing something over here and then go to this, and I’ll use this piece. Even in my artwork, sometimes when people ask me questions about how I make stuff, and then when I really break it down and I’m like, “You see this little piece in the corner? That’s a little piece that I stitched. And then this over here…” You know, that’s really what it is for me.
But I would say right now I’m really focused on farming because I am really getting very close to creating something that I can turn into a business, but as far as fibers go, weaving is definitely probably number one. I would say next would be pattern making. I love making patterns. I love Pattern Magic. If anyone’s familiar with Shingo Sato’s books, they’re amazing. I love pattern manipulation, just making cool shapes, and once I have the time I’m hoping to get more experimental with weaving. I just haven’t had the opportunity. But yeah, I would say those two are at the forefront of my brain right now.
Kesiena Onosigho: No, that’s beautiful. Yeah. I have the Pattern Magic books too and I was experimenting. It’s interesting, because I think for me, just because I was so drawn to knitting, what I love about knitting is because you’re building around fabric, which is the same with weaving. You get to build. But with knitting, I feel like it’s a little bit more… There’s less setup, I guess. Depending on what type of knitting you’re doing. So, it’s interesting, because I can pattern make. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. It can be a little too technical for me sometimes, depending on what you’re making, but I think there’s such magic in it. There is such amazingness when you play with patterns. Actual pattern making, like what you can make with it.
The farming thing is really interesting, too. So, I’m always like… It wasn’t until especially I think like 2020 where I was really talking to my mom and really trying to understand lineage, and I was just like speaking with her, because she’s originally from Reno, Nevada. Or she’s originally from Louisiana, but most of her family migrated in the ‘50s to Reno, Nevada, and so I was trying to just understand basically like what our family was doing in Louisiana, like what is our heritage there, what did everybody do, and down the line there are a lot of farmers, which I found interesting, especially when it comes to the natural dyeing and stuff.
I’m like the anomaly in my family, again, where I’m trying to make this creative career happen, and I’m like, “Where is this coming from? Because all of you guys, again, like I know there’s interest there, but none of you guys do this.” So, I’m always asking questions, and especially in 2020 when everything slowed, I was able to talk with my mom a lot more and hear stories. And yeah, so there’s a lot of farming on her side, and I found that interesting, because that would make sense. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to nature, too.
Yeah, although I don’t identify as a grower. It’s not a skill that I have. It’s like all my patience goes to the dyeing part of it. And so, it’s really funny, because my practice is extremely slow, but there always are some limits, and growing it is like… I think there’s such magic there, but it’s not… I’m not sure it’s for me yet.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. I mean, it definitely takes time, and a lot of patience. Growing, being a grower is a very huge undertaking, but it’s so amazing, and you learn so much with time, and that’s kind of the key is learning with time. I’ve been in farm programs, and I’ve learned the technical aspects of farming and this and that, but there’s so much that… so many factors that can contribute to how you grow something in a particular place that you’re really only… Your largest lessons are going to come from just doing it. So, it’s like if you feel intimidated by it, you or anyone who happens to be listening to this that’s considering starting to grow something, starting is really the only thing that you have to do.
A lot of plants will announce themselves. They’ll tell you what they want, tell you what they need. It’s really… It’s not as difficult as it may seem and it’s a beautiful process to watch the lifecycle of plants. And I don’t know, I always tell people that my seedlings, like when the plant first comes up from the ground, they’re so adorable. They’re the equivalent of looking at puppies for me. They’re so cute and it’s just watching them grow, and grow, and grow is just… It’s a beautiful thing that everyone should experience.
I mean, it’s something you could do. You could probably grow some indigo in your apartment.
Kesiena Onosigho: I know. I have a few small plants, but the thing is I’ve also killed a few small plants. I’m just… It’s really funny, because I think it’s complete magic, and again, I’m obsessed with nature. I just think it’s such a magical thing. But it’s also… Yeah, I’m in New York City. There’s just so little time. But there’s something really magical and I have… Currently, I do have like a couple little things starting to pop up. We’ll see. I don’t think I’ll become a full on gardener, like a little urban gardener. I don’t think that I have in me. But I love connecting with people who have such a passion for it because A, it’s not easy work, either. That’s the thing. It’s like it is hard work. It’s inspiring work, but it’s very hard, tedious, like you’re saying, and it takes so much time, so I admire it so much.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. And can you talk about your natural dyeing process? Maybe some of the plants that you dye with and how you source and cultivate the dye for your projects?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. For sure. So, one of the ones I’m most known for in my artwork would be the indigo use. I use indigo a lot. Indigo inks and indigo paints. Also, I naturally dye with indigo. It’s just my favorite and I know that comes back, like it’s always been one of my favorite colors, and I know that comes back to when my dad would bring me textiles when I was younger, just because a lot of them were really blue, and a lot of them were dyed with indigo, but I’ve always been obsessed with the color blue, so it’s like really a prominent one in my work oftentimes. I do use other colors, but my cool color palette is what a lot of… Yeah, I use it a lot.
And then in terms of natural dye, I do a lot of traditional dyeing too, so madder root, weld. It’s hard to name them all because I’m like I have to look at a piece of cloth, because I use a lot, but one for people who are just really getting into the dyeing, which isn’t… It’s not like the most color fast or color stable, are the flower dyes, the botanical dyeing, which is really popular. It’s good for beginners who are just trying to see the magic of seeing color translate to cloth, I think. But if you are a natural dyer and really interested in a sustainable way of coloring cloth that will last a long time, which is a part of sustainability for me, like it's supposed to last a long time, then yeah, more traditional dyes are better.
Indigo is top of tops. Indigo, I’m obsessed with, because again, it has such a strong connection to my heritage on my dad’s Nigerian side, but it’s also it has such a strong globally, like a culture, indigo culture just in general. A lot of Indigenous cultures have a connection to indigo in a really interesting, fascinating way. So, that was [inaudible 0:26:26.5] one.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. That’s amazing. Are you familiar with the type of indigo that your dad used to bring or the type of indigo used to make the textiles that you dad used to bring from Nigeria?
Kesiena Onosigho: No. So, like I’m sure some of the ones that he brought from Nigeria are probably synthetic indigo, because unfortunately in a lot of West African cultures they have swapped in… I mean, through colonization they have swapped in synthetics over natural, which I know there are also a lot of natural indigos. But I don’t know of like the cloth he brought, which ones, which indigos they were. But I know that usually in West Africa there’s the indigo tinctoria, I think, and then the indigo, is it suffruticosa? Am I saying that right? I know you know.
LaChaun Moore: Suffruticosa?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. So, I think those are the ones that grow there, but I could definitely be wrong.
LaChaun Moore: Kind of on the topic of context, and history, and family, which I feel can be seen in your work in many different ways, I’m really curious about how you layer and collage your dyed textiles and I’m wondering if you can speak to the process of creating those pieces and if they are related to that sort of mixed media background, as well as has historical and familiar themes, as well?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah, so I definitely think it does, and my process is kind of similar to what you were saying about when you’re looking at one little piece. My thing is I build up these huge libraries. I think it’s because I’m a researcher. So, I just love research, and I love history, and I also love future thinking, and the interplay between that, and so as much as I am like a naturalist, I’m definitely like an Afro futurist in the sense that I’m always looking, like time is very different for me, I think, in the sense that I’m trying to always combine the two, and so oftentimes I do series of… I work in series of three where I’m always doing like beginning, middle, and end, and trying to show that it all connects almost.
And so, that’s how I work, as well, so I’m always trying to pull stuff from my past, and incorporate it, and it’s so layered that I often say it’s like the viewer might not know what all of the layers mean, and a part of it is like maybe at the time I don’t know what it all means, but then I’m always constantly exploring and layering. But that’s just also how I navigate the world and I kind of think as a Black person, as a Black woman, you’re used to having this layered experience. And so, it’s like you know how to navigate these different layers in different ways, and when you’re in certain rooms you can see what others don’t see, and so that really I think is apparent in my work.
But it’s also how I talk, like I talk in tangents. I’m always trying to connect my last thing I said to the next thing I’m gonna say. And so, it’s really how I navigate, and so when I’m building the work, because it is really much building. Sometimes it takes me a long time to… It can take years for me to make certain pieces, just because I’m always going back and being like, “Oh, I want this here now,” or since my stuff is really research driven sometimes I’m making something and then I find research and I’m like, “Wow, it really did connect, and it was there all along and I didn’t know that.” But yeah, I’m also trying to figure out how to articulate, and so I think sometimes with art you feel it before you know how to articulate it, and so yeah, so it’s like a constant exploration is the best way to describe my process.
And again, yeah, trying to combine all these disparate ideas or thoughts, and that’s where those layers come from. Because it’s like, oh, maybe there’s a base layer and then I’m like, “Oh, let’s play with this.” It’s a lot of color. It’s a lot of texture. It’s really funny because I’ve been doing a lot of archiving of my work so that I could explore for this residency that I’m doing, because I wanted to see how I wanted to layer, and because I’m weaving this time, so I wanted to see how I was gonna layer in this in a different way maybe, and so I was like exploring some old work, and I was like, “I think I just work the exact same way.” Where it’s like I’m maybe deconstructing something like a fabric, maybe it’s like I used to do all this work with denim, and I’m just deconstructing all this denim, then I’m cutting it all up, so I’m always trying to get it down to like a small bit almost to work with, and then I build it up, and as I build it up it’s like I’m researching the history of denim, and I’m researching my contexts in denim, and I’m researching my family’s history with denim.
It's like all these continuous thoughts and as I build it things get more clear. And so, sometimes that might be on a 2D plane. I think with my fashion it used to be on a 3D kind of context because it was on the body. But still, my work is kind of… Sometimes it can be quite sculptural still. But yeah.
LaChaun Moore: And can you talk specifically about your, “Yo, Word To The Mutha” series?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah, so that was done during a residency, and the residency was really inspiring to me, because it was through a local museum here called MoCADA Museum, which is the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, and the residency was actually on Governors Island, which is a small island in New York City, and it was very nature driven. I had access to this old house, this colonial house, and I was so inspired by the nature. I was able to forage local plants. And so, all of that was in my work. At the time, I was really… It was like my first residency, so a lot of it was using old textiles from fashion jobs that I’ve had. And so, I was really speaking about sustainability, and how there’s… It’s a series of three, so for people who can’t see it, it’s a series of three, and they’re these circles.
And the residency was called, or the theme of the show eventually was like Let The Circle Be Unbroken, and again, talking about time. For me, time, it is a circle. The beginning is as much as the end as the end is the beginning. Which I think is also a lot of African cultures believe that, like it’s not… Time’s not just a straight line. And so, I was really exploring that with that series. Oftentimes, my work, I’m looking at Black culture, and in that case I was looking at Black American culture specifically, so that was like a slang that was popular. “Yo, Word To Your Mother” is a slang word that was popular basically during the time I was born, like ‘80s, ‘90s, and so I’m revisiting that. I’m revisiting language with it.
And so, these are the layers I’m talking about. When you view them, you might not see all these layers or understand all these layers.
LaChaun Moore: But that’s kind of I think what makes art good for the artist, because you get to put so many feelings and so many emotions in this place, and then it feels done, or finished, or at least for me that’s how I feel when I’m layering things.
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. And it’s like the layers is what makes the work, and again, I don’t know if other artists do this. I actually have never had this conversation with one of my art friends. But like I’m the type too, once the work is finished I still explore it. Maybe that’s again in the articulation of it, of like the after effect, but seeing those things now, and sometimes there’s work that I was making I think even during that time, and I didn’t know certain artists at that time, and then I find these other artists. I focus a lot on Black abstractionist artists, so that’s kind of like my niche specialty, I think, but then I found certain Black artists and I see the work they’re making and I’m like, “Whoa, I wasn’t even familiar with that work, but I see it reflected in my work.” Because it’s like we’re truly a lineage, you know?
LaChaun Moore: Yes. Yes.
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. I think it’s fascinating. I do sometimes, yeah, even after the work, it’s like the layers, it’s finished then, but that’s just a part of that process. I still figure out articulation sometimes after through researching artists, or other specifically Black abstract artists, because I think abstraction is something different than figurative sometimes in terms of how people… If there’s a figure there, you can understand a little bit more, like you can relate to it a little bit more, where if it’s abstract I know a lot of people process it differently.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. That’s so interesting. It’s so interesting that you say that because there is artwork that will visually tell a story, but then there are ways that you can tell a story and be connected to the lineage by using different materials. Like for instance the way I use cotton, I think it tells a story of who my ancestors were and where they come from, but when you look at it it’s a large piece with a bunch of different fabrics on it. But it’s like I feel like other Black people will look at it and be like, “Oh, this is that fabric that everyone had in their house in ’96.” Or this is that type of shape that everybody knows. There are just certain things that we’re gonna pick up on and recognize, so I absolutely hear you when you say that.
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. And that goes back to that layered experience, right? When you’re in spaces, you can pick up on things that others aren’t picking up, or because it’s like… Yeah, we’re speaking to each other but in another way, so yeah.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. And can you speak to navigating space in contemporary art as a Black textile-based artist?
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting… It’s such an interesting question. I mean, it’s such an interesting thing in general, like navigating space. I don’t know. That’s such an interesting… I’m like, “Okay, really,” my research… Something about that really inspired me. This happens. I get inspired by just a phrase a lot, hence the “Yo, Word To Your Motha,” like just sometimes something will just set me off. But yeah, so navigating space as a Black woman artist, it’s an interesting thing, especially because I work in abstraction. I don’t work with figures. And it is textiles mostly specifically. I do do paint, but again, usually if it’s paint or something, it’s like naturally… It’s like ink I’ve made from plants, which I still consider fibers, or textiles.
So, I don’t know. It’s like it’s an interesting thing. My biggest thing I think starting in 2018, 2019, is I’ve been really trying to work on finding community because I don’t think that the art world is really set up to support or wants to really support deeply textile artists, because it’s always… Textile, like other artists are already kind of othered, but specifically textile artists that are Black are not supported in New York City. In 2021, I was doing a lot of art surveys of the textile art scene, and the amount of textile Black artists accepted into textile residencies is very, very, extremely low, and the amount of education around African textiles or textiles across the African Diaspora is very low. Like when you’re learning natural dyes, you don’t hear that people in Africa dyed with plants. You know what I mean?
And it’s like how could you leave out that information? So, even on my early journey of natural dyes, it was… I was in some very harmful spaces just because they were predominantly white, and what is being taught, or how it’s being taught is very colonized, and very… Yeah, it’s very interesting. So, basically I made it a goal to really try to find community because I wasn’t seeing myself represented or feeling accepted, I guess, or feeling… Yeah, and so I work a lot with…
I’ve been really lucky, so I work a lot with a museum here, The MoCADA Museum that I talked about, which is the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, and again, it’s like local to me. It’s in my neighborhood, which is really great, and really just finding a community of artists who understand my experiences, but are still like growing too, and we’re all trying to find our space within this world… Because yeah, it’s not… It’s very interesting.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. It’s really interesting that you mentioned that one point about the colonization of textile education because it’s so true. It amazes me that people still talk about indigo in the U.S. and don’t mention South Carolina.
Kesiena Onosigho: Right. I mean, yeah. It’s crazy. It’s also you’re just not taught that was… Yeah. It was a very important crop that was used, you know? So, it’s like how are you leaving out all this information, but indigo is so important, especially to natural dyers?
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. It’s so, so interesting to me. I mean, just in general I think fiber history and textile history, I think when we had our residency meetup, so for those of you all listening, all of us, Sobia, adé, Kesiena, Melvenea, and myself, we got together and we had a wonderful conversation and a meetup, and we got to talk about our background, and our current, and just so many things about fibers and textiles. It was a phenomenal meeting. It was really just such an amazing flow of energy amongst all of us. And I’m so grateful that all of you all applied and that we have this opportunity to connect and hold space for you at Gist.
But one of the things that came up in conversation was what we’re talking about now, and the text by Mary Madison, Plantation Slave Weavers, and how that’s really one of the very few texts that has a collection of works or accounts by formerly enslaved persons and their relation to textiles and the making of textiles. We learn about the history of enslavement. We learn about cotton and farming. It’s so rare that there is life put into our ancestors and what they experienced. And it’s a difficult thing to describe because so much of our ancestors’ history is linked to pain and suffrage, and so I never want to seem like I am trying to delineate from that. I just feel that there’s a lot to be told about their lives and their contributions, and it is to the benefit of me and people like me, and so I want to know. I want to know how they were weaving and what they were weaving, and what they were making, and what they were collecting.
Even being out here in South Carolina, I’ve visited a couple plantations, ones who are teaching people about the lives of being slaves and how plantations worked, and that are being accountable for the violence and the degradation that enslaved Africans faced and experienced, but one of the things that I learned that was so interesting, they were telling me that at night they would go out in the woods, and then they would hunt, and like bury the bones, and they found bones dating back to years and years ago, and it’s the same for fabric, and plants, and all of these different things.
And so, these are things that people don’t know about because it hasn’t been talked about, but it’s like when you look at how profitable the fiber and craft industry has become off of things that African people, continental African people have been doing for a long time, Indigenous people throughout Latin America and the United States have been doing for a long time, and also African Americans have been doing for a long time, and other Indigenous cultures within the different races and ethnicities of the world, but it’s like it’s that I guess juxtaposition of… or maybe it’s not a juxtaposition, but it’s like you know this, the roots of all of this, but then you look at modern textiles and how things come to be and it’s just a lot to unpack.
Kesiena Onosigho: Right. And there’s such a disconnect. And it’s one of those things… I mean, I agree with you so much, and so deeply, and it’s one of those things where it’s like if you look, the reasons why they were enslaved was because of their knowledge. It’s they were so great at it. And so, it’s like one of those things where it’s like I definitely want to hear how they were weaving. I definitely want to hear what they were foraging. I definitely want to see what plants they were dyeing with because… And I definitely want to hear those histories because it’s so important, because again, ancestrally, that’s like a skill. We are inherently sustainable people.
So, it’s very important to find those stories. I can tell you, and one of the things I always say is like it’s super hard to do that research, right? Obviously, we’re niche people who have a deep interest, but the reasons why these stories aren’t told, it’s not that they don’t exist. It’s like they’re just not being shared, and we have to… The amount of time where you’re like researching and stuff, not everybody has that interest or that knowledge, so it’s important for us to definitely share that once we find it, for sure.
And that’s a huge part of my work, and to go back into the educator part of me, that is like a responsibility that as an artist I kind of… Yeah. I feel like it’s important to share that when you find it, because our contributions are so much. There’s just so much there. Especially in the textiles. Especially in the fashion zone. And that’s why it’s offensive almost when you see what it looks like now, what sustainable fashion looks like, what the fashion industry looks like. When you hear, when you look at specifically like art history, women’s history, and you look at like textile history, it’s a mostly white space and it’s offensive. I don’t know a better word. Because it’s not real. It’s just colonized.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah.
Kesiena Onosigho: I say that a lot about the natural dyes, is that it’s like a colonized space because of the way that people are monetizing it and commercializing it, and again, not sharing histories or tying it back to anything. It’s a very, especially natural dyes right now, it’s a very colonized space. And I say this a lot because there are so many amazing natural dyers who are from Indigenous cultures, who are from across the African Diaspora, who this is their knowledge. Like ancestrally, this is their knowledge. But to see who’s being paid, or who’s trying to profit off of it, or who’s monetizing it at extreme, and I’m gonna say this, like extreme amounts for the knowledge, and not like the art of it, but for the knowledge of it. Yeah. That is a lot of what natural dyes is currently and the popularization of it and how it’s being… Especially on Instagram on TikTok, like how it’s being commercialized, I guess.
Yeah. I think it’s fascinating in a sense, because it’s like why? How? That’s interesting you think you should be making money, so much money off of it in this way. Because there is a way to do it. I’m not saying anybody should not make money for their work, but it’s like you don’t get to own that knowledge. And I also think about people who navigate natural spaces, because a lot of my material is nature, right? But it’s like the way people try to profit or say like, “This I own,” and I’m gonna shout out an amazing educator, Lisa Betty, and this is the first time I had heard this phrase. It’s like ecocolonialism, where it’s like you’re trying to colonize the ecology, like nature.
LaChaun Moore: Yes.
Kesiena Onosigho: And I think that’s so fascinating, gross, and we’re… At the stage of capitalism we’re in, I think that’s where we’re at, where people will try to be like, “This tree grew, and I own it.” You know what I mean? It’s like you don’t own the land, the tree. You can say like, “I’m building my house here.” You know what I mean? Because otherwise that’s colonization. It’s saying like… and this is what I feel like natural dyers do. It’s like, “I made this by me,” and it’s like this is an Indigenous technique that has been used for billions and billions of years. It’s ancient. You don’t own that. But yeah, I think that’s really interesting and a lot of that goes on in the natural dye space, which I’ve been researching a lot lately.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. Yeah. I haven’t been tapped into Instagram or just like current things that are going on, but there was a moment when I was on Instagram and I was seeing a lot of the work happening in people doing this and that, and even through this podcast I’ve had to learn a lot of lessons about makers, and creators, and originality, and things like that. And so, yeah, I totally agree, and I think that one of the things that is also really poignant to me about even sustainability and the sustainable aesthetic is that it still does speak to colonialism.
Because I have this… I’ve been sitting on this thought for a long time, so I’m gonna try to get it out, and hopefully it will make sense. But it’s like when I was in art school, in art history, and I was learning about the modernist movement, the Bauhaus, or Bauhaus, not the Bauhaus, and it took me a long time to come to understand that it was modern because it lacked adornment. It’s modern because it lacks adornment and because it lacks adornment it is for everyone, so it’s this kind of method of being like, “We’re all the same. These letters can all speak to anyone.” There’s no… What is it called… on it, or this chair doesn’t have claws on it which is linked to this culture, and this and that, and I feel like that’s kind of been the thread of modernism and also it’s kind of fallen into sustainability in a lot of ways, where things are just really, really simplified.
But I feel like the only reason that we view adornment as something that is linked to capitalism is because of capitalism, and not so much what it means inherently to be adorned. We come from cultures of people who wore things, who wore layers, who wore hairstyles, and it wasn’t about having money. Maybe status. Maybe there’s hierarchy attached. But the idea that less is somehow… There’s something about the idea of the lack of that I think reinforces-
Kesiena Onosigho: Right. Yeah. You’re making complete sense and I’m totally with you too. It’s also interesting because I’m trying to figure out how I want to articulate what I want to add, because it’s interesting, because then there’s so much to pull from that, because I think the way that the world works today especially, it flattens and reduces, right? Which I think a lot of modernism, like it did, but technically speaking, and I don’t think I’m gonna articulate this properly. I can already tell. But like technically speaking, a lot of the inspiration always comes from Indigenous cultures, especially in the arts, so even like Picasso, who a lot of people don’t know art, but they’ll know a Picasso. I mean, it’s like African masks is literally where he’s pulling from, so again, it’s like when I say… It’s like ancestrally, we’re there. Ancestrally, we’re the leaders in the space.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah.
Kesiena Onosigho: They’re coming to certain Indigenous lands. I mean, I feel like this a lot about too, not to get… A lot of fiber artists, they would go to Mexico. They would go to South America. They’d go to these different places, and they pull from that culture and that’s why they’re so popular. It’s not that they came up with anything or originated, and that’s why it’s like it’s colonization. Because it’s like you’re pulling what’s there and you’re just erasing that knowledge. You’re flattening, you’re reducing, and saying, “This is mine. Hi, this is me.”
But in terms of the adornment, I think it’s interesting too, because I agree with you in the sense of like adornment doesn’t necessarily mean bad taste, and I remember a lot of Parsons… Parsons really beats Bauhaus into you.
LaChaun Moore: Oh, my goodness.
Kesiena Onosigho: They really try. So many conversations. And so, I do think there’s something really interesting what you’re saying with this, that’s why I’m trying to figure out what points I want to talk about, but I think… Yeah. I agree with you in a lot of ways.
LaChaun Moore: And it’s an ongoing thought, like that was kind of just me sharing something that I’ve been harboring on for a long time, because I’m still thinking about sustainability and what it means, and how it pertains to my practice, and who I am as an artist, and you know, we hear all of these messages and sometimes things resonate with me and sometimes they don’t, and I just think it’s really important that all spaces include people from different walks of life so that there could be different perspectives and so that when the vision then goes out to people, and people then digest it, it’s coming from a place that is inclusive genuinely.
And I just, you know, I feel like when I look at a lot of the way things are going and being talked about, I’m just kind of like… I don’t know. I don’t know about this. I don’t know about this. Something about it is not… But then it’s also, then it’s so what do we do? What do we do? How do we mitigate or what can we do as people in this space?
Kesiena Onosigho: I do want to just add really quickly, like the sustainability thing, because I think it’s really interesting. I think it’s fascinating how people, like it’s such a wide word. I usually don’t use it unless I’m using it in context, just because it is such a wide word. It means so many different things. And so, people have… Technically, it’s like a marketing word now, you know what I mean? It just means so many different things and people associate it with like, “Oh, this is good because it’s environment,” and that’s not necessarily what sustainability is to me, I guess. So, yeah, I understand what you were saying with that, for sure.
And I think just also the questioning of is it good, like is it moving in the direction, I think that’s… I think it’s important because I think also when you were talking about like Bauhaus, just to go back a second, like when you’re saying less is more, or less is better, like for me, my biggest thing is like I hate excess. I hate waste, basically. I don’t believe in it. Meaning again, you see at my work, I repurpose everything. I forage a lot of found things. I really don’t like waste in that sense because I also think ancestrally, there wasn’t waste. You would use what you had. And so, that’s a part of to me, like that’s sustainability. It’s not like what fashion especially has made it look like.
LaChaun Moore: And it’s not… I’m not saying this because I’m being combative, or like talking down anything. It’s just more so I’m so curious about how this is gonna go and how this is shaping, and what these things mean.
Kesiena Onosigho: Yeah. You’re questioning the context of it. And I think that’s really important. I also think that for me, like we were talking about what… You said like what are we gonna do, or what are we supposed to do, or what is the action of it, and again, it’s like for me as an artist, I think it’s so important for me, who’s also driven by research, like that’s important to me, to tie it back to history, to tie it back and once I become aware, or once I’ve found something important, like to share that information.
And so, it might only reach very few, it might be in the artwork, it might be in the way I educate in certain spaces. It’s just very important for me to let people have access to that information once it’s found. And to always tie it back. I think that’s also very important to me, because I just don’t believe in this like, “I’ve invented this. This Indigenous technique from nature, but all my people, I come from a history of people who colonized.” Do you know what I’m saying? Who do not work with the [inaudible 0:57:23.9]. So, it’s like it seems kind of counter to me to be like, “Oh, so again, why people were enslaved was because they had that knowledge, they had that skill of growing crops. They were agriculturally genius.” You know what I mean?
So, then to come from a space of like my ancestors weren’t in this way, and I get everybody has Indigenous ancestors. Everybody does. It just might be Indigenous to a different part, so like research. If you’re white, research what Indigenous culture you come from and what they did there, you know what I’m saying? So, I think that’s also very important, because the flattening and reducing is what I call, that’s what I feel like Instagram is really, like you have to be so flat, and you have to reduce it down so much that it doesn’t even have context anymore, which is colonization. You say, “I own this land now. There was nobody here before me.”
And so, I think it’s like really, we have to try to like… Yeah, they call it decolonizing, of course, but really combat that, and it’s not… Yeah. I think that’s just really important to tie stuff to other stuff. Because yeah, none of this is new. This is all very old, ancient. Textiles, fiber, that’s a part of why I love it so much. Because it’s there’s so much innovation that can happen there, but there was already so many innovators who we’re descendants of that did it.
LaChaun Moore: Absolutely. And speaking of all of the different obstacles and facets of navigating space in the contemporary art and fiber world, can you talk about how you as a maker sustain, whether it be financially, environmentally, or socially?
Kesiena Onosigho: I mean, yeah. I think community is so important. I moved to New York when I was like 17 going on 18, very young. I’ve worked so many jobs. As a young creative, I can tell you your community is really important to cultivate, because I think that when I’m looking for work, that’s who’s giving me work. And I specifically do in this case mean like Black women have given me the most jobs and have supported me the most financially in the art space, but also just yeah, finding people that look like you, or not that look like you. That think, that are like-minded. Community means so many different things, but for me as a young Black woman artist who mostly does textiles, which isn’t necessarily like accepted in the traditional arts world, I think that people, like my community has supported me so much with that.
There’s so many ways to be an artist. That’s just the honest truth. There’s so many different ways to navigate that space. And for me, I don’t like selling artwork to people I don’t want to sell my artwork to. So, that means I prioritize making my income, making money elsewhere sometimes, like sometimes I do sell artworks when I feel like it, or it might be… I usually sell smaller scale artworks. Because also I think your archive is really important, and that’s part of my art practice and my personality, like holding onto something that you really value is really important. I really value my artwork.
So, I think I don’t like to sell it always, so I do do other jobs. Jobs that I used to do were in fashion. I worked in fashion for a long time. And then outside of fashion, when I was deciding to 100% focus on my artistic practice, I decided I wanted jobs that support that. So, everything kind of ties in. Again, about connecting dots, that’s how I live my life, so I like to educate, so I do workshops. I educate. I work with some of the fashion schools to teach. But I also value “sustainability,” right? So, I do freelance gigs through a company called Garbage Goddess, which… They compost. We compost the florals from like huge events around New York City, which is really great because sometimes I can get the flowers from that, and I give flowers to natural dyers sometimes, as well.
So, it’s again, like I like my resources to feed into each other, but not take away from my artistic practice.
LaChaun Moore: And you also recently joined Gist as an artist in residence for 2022. Can you give our listeners a sneak peak into what you’ll be working on during your time with us?
Kesiena Onosigho: Well, if I haven’t talked about community enough, I’m hosting some community events, actually, which I’m so excited about. I was able to bring in a couple of friends to help support this work, and so one is gonna actually happen not this weekend, but next weekend. It’s weaving in the park. It’s called Weaving Skies, is my project, so I’ll be teaching a workshop in the park, and that is local to me. It’s in my neighborhood. With some friends. And we’re gonna be teaching weaving. It’s a weaving workshop, so I’m really excited about that.
And then I’m working on a really cool… So far, it’s really taking mixed media form, but it’s a new textile work that I’m excited about. And so, that’s… Yeah, this residency has been good so far. Meeting up with LaChaun, chatting her ear off, meeting up with the other artists, having phenomenal conversations. Yeah.
LaChaun Moore: Well, I am so excited and so grateful that you have decided to grace us with your presence, as well, and I’m also just again so grateful for this conversation. And your brain, your mind, it’s so beautiful, so intelligent, and I’m so, so, so grateful for you and for this conversation. And before you go, I do have one question to ask you, and it’s a question that we ask everyone that’s ever joined the podcast. It’s how we close out every episode. And that is do you have any advice or words of wisdom to share with weavers and textile enthusiasts?
Kesiena Onosigho: Wow. I just think, yeah, keep at it, but also I would always encourage people to experiment, because I know weaving can be… It’s really traditional. It can be really traditional. But there’s so much there. It’s at the base of all innovation, I feel, like weaving in terms of computers looked to weaving to get [inaudible 1:04:31.2] off of. Text is based off of textile, so really push that boundary because there’s a lot that can happen with textiles in general. Yeah. And weaving specifically.
LaChaun Moore: Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you so much for joining us.
Kesiena Onosigho: Thank you so much, LaChaun. Seriously, this conversation’s so energetic. I thank you so much for giving me so much of your time. I really wanted to talk with you more in depth, so this has been great.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah.
That’s a wrap. If you’re interested in seeing images of Kesiena’s work or to read a full transcript of this week’s episode, you can visit the show notes at www.gistyarn.com/episode-145. Our next episode will feature another one of our artists in residence, Sobia Ahmad, so stay tuned for the announcement for when that announcement for when that episode will be available. Thank you for your continued support. Until next time, happy weaving!
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