Spotlight: Human Nature

Alexandra Kehayoglou on Design & Nature

Anna Carnick

A conversation with the Argentinian textile artist-designer on holding on to hope

In the “Human Nature” series, we explore the critical, evolving relationship between humans and our environment through conversations with some of today’s most inspiring, influential, and boundary breaking design creatives.

For this installment, we speak with Alexandra Kehayoglou, an Argentinian born textile artist and designer whose intricate, handwoven works are inspired by—and homages to—our natural environment. Utilizing a range of expert weaving techniques, Kehayoglou’s topographical works exist at the intersection of textile, sculpture, and installation. Increasingly, her stunning, woven landscapes have become vehicles for reflection on  our declining ecosystems—the result of her own immersion in these disappearing landscapes. As she puts it, “If activism has the task of ringing the alarm, art and design can offer ways to connect us with something beyond. Something more spiritual, in the realm of magic. We must hold on to hope...hope offers a path forward.”

Argentinian textile artist-designer Alexandra Kehayoglou in the Paraná Delta in Argentina. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kehayoglou

For those unfamiliar with your work, please explain your focus and approach.

My work consists of nature-inspired textile landscapes, crafted as a reaction to the progressive disappearance of our natural world. About 15 years ago, I began researching overlooked landscapes in need of conservation. My tapestries and carpets are inspired by memories of various native and endangered landscapes that I have documented and researched. My textile work continues an ancient family tradition that comes from Isparta in Minor Asia, where my grandparents were exiled during the Greco-Turkish War, before going on to settle in Argentina.

My latest works come as a result of moving myself, as well as my family, onto a piece of land in the Paraná wetlands in Argentina three years ago to observe and document an abandoned quinta in an area that has seen dramatic ecological shifts in recent years as the result of dam regulations, waterway construction, new roads, and climate change. We witnessed how noninvasive species, as well as local fauna, began to reappear in this forgotten place, looking for a safe place to survive.

My recent textiles are inspired by this setting. My message is not one of mischief,  sadness, or destruction. Rather, through my work, I intend to offer hope, to show how this place can be reborn, quickly, just by putting an end to the damming and living in equilibrium with local animals and vegetation.

Kehayoglou’s work reflects on our relationship and responsibility to our changing environment. Refugio para un recuerdo II (Shelter for a memory II), 2012. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kehayoglou

What is the future vision you are working toward?

Over the last two years, humanity has experienced a major reset in relation to our environment. The pandemic took us out of time, freezing our normal routines, and for me it was an opportunity to live within affected lands and document the changes occurring in these places.

My partner Jose Huidobro and our family became guardians of this piece of land located in the wetlands of the Paraná river, which begins in Southern Brazil and descends onto the estuary of the River Plate, ultimately reaching the Atlantic Ocean. After decades of exploitation, the land seemed to have forgotten who she was. It was all dead streams, clogged arteries, utter devastation.

Isolation made me reconsider my carpets as spaces where new forms of activism might be enacted. My carpets became instruments for documenting “minor” aspects of the land that were otherwise overlooked or considered irrelevant. I chose to focus on its micro-narratives, which could in fact open new doors for possible ecological futures.

Working with decimated and disappearing landscapes over the last years has changed my vision on what my work should be about; my perspective is now focused on offering hope. If activism has the task of ringing the alarm, art and design can offer ways to connect us with something beyond. Something more spiritual, in the realm of magic. We must hold on to hope. The information is available for everyone, it is time we read in a more loving way.

Thistle (left) and High Waters Retreat (right) by Alexandra Kehayoglou, two of her most recent works inspired by her time in the Paraná wetlands. Photos courtesy of Alexandra Kehayoglou

How can the past inform our way forward?

Today I am working on a new project—one connected with the past that guides me toward the future. I am now setting up my new studio in Athens, having spent the last four months in Crete, where wonderful people invited me to learn how to weave using the traditional Greek techniques.

This new voyage is truly fascinating in so many ways. One hundred years ago, my grandmother Elpiniki carried her loom in a boat from Greece to Argentina; now I am coming from Argentina back to Greece to embrace the tradition that got lost in that journey.

Santa Cruz River (2016-2017). This textile tapestry documents the proposed site of two major hydroelectric dams on Argentina's Santa Cruz River—the last free-flowing wild river in the country. Presented at NGV Triennial in Melbourne, 2018. Commissioned and acquired by NVG; courtesy of The National Gallery of Victoria

Are you optimistic about the future?

My work is about hope, about offering a new perspective. I work with multiple layers that are scattered around a carpet, a textile that lays on the floor or the wall, or over different topographies. Every time I tell a story of a land, I am honoring its territory.

With my work I do not wish to bring fear to a situation that already hurts deeply. Saying goodbye to a piece of land, or to a river, is a painful, sad experience, like letting a bit of yourself go as well.

But indeed I am hopeful. I honor these beautiful lands. Some have overcome great pain, some will endure much more. They will change; nature is always changing. Lands are happy to house us, but they want to be respected too. It has to become a circular relationship, a fair interchange.

I believe water brings this into focus. Rivers are being challenged, changed, altered, bypassed. Energy changes. Spirits change. Humanity changes.

No Longer Creek 2016, a reflection on human's impact on the natural world and specifically the Raggio Creek north of Buenos Aires. Commissioned by Artsy and presented at Design Miami/ Basel 2016. Photo courtesy of the designer, Artsy, and The National Gallery of Victoria

From your perspective, how must our relationship to nature change?

Nature is always present as a mirror for us to see our impact. We must live with her in harmony, give back, take care. We should observe how our indigenous tribes interact with nature. We should be inspired by their cosmovisions and ways.

And I think the way we are intending to change things, to talk about ecocides and climate change, must be revised. Creating panic and fear may lead to inaction; hope offers a path forward.

Thank you, Alexandra!

 

This interview is part of a special editorial series inspired by the 2021 Design Miami/ Basel theme “Human Nature.” On the eve of the event, Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Design Miami and Anava Projects took the opportunity to connect with a short list of exceptional creatives working at the forefront of environmentally minded, and therefore socially minded, design. The series explores the evolving relationship between humans and our environment—and asks how that relationship must shift—through conversations with some of today’s most inspiring, influential, and boundary breaking design creatives.

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