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Vanessa Barragão is a Portuguese textile artist working with tapestries, carpets and textile sculptures. Her works incorporate diverse techniques to create often large, abstract textile collages reminiscent of seascapes. We’ve spoken to her by phone to learn more about her practice.
Where About Now: Where are you right now?
Vanessa Barragão: I’m in my studio in Albufeira, in the South of Portugal, it’s my hometown. I was living in Porto and my studio started there but then I decided I wanted to return to my hometown and enjoy the life there. It’s better than in the city: you have the seaside, it’s always summer, the weather is perfect.
WAN: So I guess there’s no place you’d rather be?
VB: No, no, no. Well, maybe Berlin… I went there in February for the weekend and I loved it.
WAN: Well you’re welcome here anytime. So to talk a bit about your work, can you tell us about your techniques and methods you use to create your visual worlds?
VB: All of my work is handmade here in my studio. The tapestries are made with diverse techniques - many of which I learned from my grandmother. I started using them during my Master Degree in Fashion Design and it was during this time that I realized it was not really fashion that I wanted to do but more textiles. So I started exploring more techniques and I started creating my own textiles to make my clothes. During the Master Degree I started creating yarns made of natural wool but I couldn’t use this wool for clothing so I started doing tapestries and that’s how my project started. Now I use a few techniques like latch-hook, crochet, embroidery, felt and I mix everything to create the pieces.
WAN: Where do you source your material?
VB: All the materials are recycled. I have a few factories in the North of Portugal that always give me their waste and leftovers which I use in my projects so I can work completely sustainable and eco-friendly. The message I try to pass is exactly this message to be more eco-friendly and sustainable in order to preserve our planet. So I usually try to show the reality of the ocean, specifically the coral reefs. So this is my mission as an artist.
WAN: Can you talk a bit more about your experiences with water and the sea and how it influences your work?
VB: Yes, during University I was very inspired by nature and the ocean. Maybe because I grew up close to the seaside in Albufeira, and here the ocean is very important for the people, for tourism as well and for the city, it’s the base. And in my childhood I used to travel a lot with my parents to the Caribbean and places where we could see coral reefs. I think this was the most impressive thing I have seen. When I was a kid, when I saw it for the first time it was really exciting and maybe these experiences inspired me to do this kind of work. I couldn’t tell you there was one day when I started thinking about the project and I decided to do it - no - it came super organically.
WAN: Would you say you’re influenced by the Portuguese history and tradition of marine travel?
VB: No, no, no. The Portuguese people historically went all over the world to discover other countries but no, I’m not close to this kind of thing. My work is to show what is happening and to create consciousness about it in people. It’s more about this than about the history of my country.
WAN: When you observe water from the land it looks flat, but once you’re inside it becomes a three-dimensional world that surrounds you.
VB: Yes, it’s completely new.
WAN: Yes, and we see this immersiveness in your work. How do you go about capturing this three-dimensionality when you create your pieces?
VB: Well, you know, many people have never actually seen coral reefs. And it’s quite nice to show this inspiration so maybe they can understand how beautiful they are and maybe they can be inspired to make a change. I've never dived, I just did snorkelling, but I would like to dive and have the freedom to go to the bottom of the sea with the sharks and everything. I think it’s nice to give the idea to other people about how beautiful the depths of the sea are, specifically regarding marine life. People need to be aware about what we are doing and its effects on other systems which we don’t even imagine exist.
WAN: We’ve seen that you’ve been to Raja Ampat in Indonesia, one of the most biodiverse marine areas on Earth. We’ve also been there and know how impressive experiencing such a healthy coral reef system is: the colors, textures and vibrancy, and one can really see that in your works.
VB: Oh yes, I went to Raja Ampat two years ago, which was the last time I’ve seen coral reefs. I did it to explore more species and to get more inspired by them and I hadn’t been to a place like that in a long time. The places we’d been with my parents when we went snorkelling, the corals were all dead and in Raja Ampat they are completely healthy and it was amazing.
WAN: It’s said that healthy coral reefs mean a healthy ocean environment. Do you see coral reefs as a symbol for ocean health?
VB: Yes for sure, because coral reefs are animals first of all, and they are the base for the little fishes, and the little fishes maintain the big ones as well. So if the coral reefs get lost completely I think we will have a big problem because many species will disappear. I think that if we don't change a little bit - no, a lot - our way of living now, we can exterminate many species and this is a big problem because we need all the species. Humans really need to change but it’s very difficult to change minds. Every single day that passes, I’m very sad about people… it’s quite difficult to explain this in English.
WAN: So would you say that art is one way of starting a conversation?
VB: Yes, exactly, art is a great way to show and teach people about these things, and to make them aware and hopefully bring change. My work is all about that and it’s my mission as an artist to change minds for the better. It’s really hard because people normally do the same things without realizing. They don’t pay attention and aren’t aware of the consequences their actions have, and this is a big problem.
WAN: That’s a beautiful mission.
VB: Yes, and hard as well!
WAN: So what are you working on right now?
VB: I just finished a tapestry, a big one, and I will start some new ones right now. I am mostly working for commissions for private clients right now. Most of the exhibitions I had this year were cancelled because of the virus and I don’t have plans for any new exhibitions. So I’m just working for private clients which is also great so I can keep my work going.
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