How Artist and Designer María Elena Pombo Is Sowing Seeds for Change
From textiles to fashion to research and installation art, creative endeavors often take on varying forms for the Venezuelan-American artist and designer María Elena Pombo, who started her studio, Fragmentario, in 2016, after stints studying industrial engineering and working as a fashion designer. Here, she tells us about her current focus—experimenting with avocado seeds as a material for dyeing fabric and making bricks and even face masks—and how this rigorous project serves as a platform for considering slowness, as well as the social, political, and environmental consequences of a singular economy.
What led you to start Fragmentario? Can you share more about the naming of your studio?
I studied industrial engineering in Venezuela and France, and then came to New York to study fashion design, and worked in fashion for a few years. I was also a big nerd and did Model United Nations for a big part of my youth. I've always been interested in learning about how the world—our past, present, future—how things work, our cultures.
I started Fragmentario in 2016. I had been working in fashion for three years at that point, but always doing self-initiated projects on the side that reflected a different pace than that of fashion. I had been interested in the Slow Food movement for many years, wanting to bring this same celebration of slowness beyond the food context. I wrote words and expressions in different languages related to slowness and was playing on Google Translate, switching between languages. I did some tests in Latin and Esperanto. I actually almost used “Paulatim” as a name, which means “little by little,” in Latin, but it felt too literal, so I kept looking. I had an idea to try in Galician—my paternal grandparents emigrated from this area of Spain to Venezuela in the late 1950s, and spoke that language between each other—and through a glitch in the system I got “Fragmentario.”
I liked the word, and that it had a dual meaning. It came to me while searching for ways to convey slowness, but it also means, in Spanish, a collection of fragments. I always envisioned it as a project that would have multiple sub-projects, so it felt perfect. A friend tried to talk me out of it, because fragments are imperfect, but to me that was the whole point: Humanity is imperfect, and we should accept and celebrate it, instead of trying to make us into robots.
Fragmentario has described itself as a textile studio, though it’s visibly grown to work on a range of material explorations and projects.
I was never too concerned about defining what Fragmentario was—maybe to a fault, especially since I live in a low-context culture where these boundaries are expected. I’ve described it as a textile studio, natural-dyes studio, creative studio, design studio, plant studio, research platform, a pseudonym. I haven’t been particularly organized about this, because the end result has never been so interesting for me as the ideas behind it: slowness, imperfection, and giving it space to grow. I’m comfortable in that fluid space.
What led you to start working with avocado seeds as a material? Can you describe a few of the different experiments and applications you’ve been working on?
I first started working with avocado seeds to extract color from them, when I learned about plants with dyeing properties. I was very intrigued, because it’s a plant that was very commonplace in my life in Venezuela. At the house I grew up in, we had an avocado tree, so we’d just get them from the backyard. This discovery made me curious about what else I had overlooked about my life in Venezuela.
I started asking restaurants to give me their avocado seeds and at first no one wanted to, but then a friend convinced a restaurant in Brooklyn, and I started having more than I knew what to do with. I slowly started to experiment with them, as I suddenly had a big offer of this material.
First, I experimented with extracting color from [them], then shifting these colors, using waters from around the world given to me by different friends around the world. In 2018, I started grinding the seeds into a powder, just for storing purposes, as the powder has less volume than the seeds, and that’s when the idea of exploring it as a material first came to be. It took me a year to understand ways to transform it with processes and materials that were in line with my own ideas. I’ve primarily been making bricks, but also different structures—and even some face masks.
Waste, sustainability, and collective consciousness have been core to your explorations. Can you share your thinking on these critical issues and the types of changes you'd like to see?
Using “waste” is a very Venezuelan thing, or at least quite normal in my family. I remember a time when I wanted a tambourine as a child: My mom had me ask people to save their bottle caps for me, then we made the tambourine with them. It was a fun process that involved others and made an unique object. I think if we approached what people refer to as sustainability as an opportunity for tapping our human ingenuity and having fun, we'd have a better chance of making the world we want to live in—or leave behind.
Because I have lived in different countries, and my family and friends are spread around the world—eighteen percent of the population of Venezuela has left the country, and in my immediate circles, this number is a lot higher—I think a lot about the different ways we see the world, and how in different contexts things become accepted (or not) and why, as well as the misunderstandings and missed opportunities that arise from a lack of understanding that our own set of values are not always universal. I think that becoming conscious of our own collective consciousnesses is the first step to being free and imagining possibilities.
I don't think I ever straight-up talk about “sustainability,” or with that name at least. It’s a very charged word that has lost meaning and lacks introspection. Everything is connected, and I think it’s something that is often ignored. I see the food industry speaking about food waste, but not daring to speak about the effects of animal agriculture because it’s too controversial a topic; the fashion industry speaking about hemp fibers, but not talking about the fact that people in the U.S. buy, on average, over sixty garments a year and throw away, on average, seventy pounds of fiber a year; the construction industry speaking about “hempcrete,” but not the fact that, in China alone, there are over fifty million apartments empty, and the refugee population in the world is thirty million. I’m not saying everyone needs to become vegan, stop buying clothes, or send all the refugees in the world to China, but these realities exist, and we need to address them. I also don't have anything against hemp; I love hemp.
What projects or research topics are you working on next?
Different projects and commissions, but the one that is taking up my time the most is a project, called “La Rentrada,” that proposes an economy around avocado seeds. It’s the third component of a trilogy that explores the avocado seed: its origins, its transformation into a globalized pop icon, its materiality, et cetera. The project is inspired by Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy. There has been, for many years, an overall concern about building a more diverse economy, the most iconic call to action coming from Venezuelan writer and politician Arturo Uslar Pietri, who, in 1936, stressed the need to “sow the oil,” to use its profits to strengthen other sectors of the economy. Yet, in 2019, the oil industry constituted ninety-six percent of the country’s exports.
I want to push this idea of using avocado seeds as a material until the point of absurdity, as a reflection of my own experience of petroleum ruling everything around me. I think for people who come from countries with diversified economies, it’s difficult to fully grasp the ways in which oil states work and how this trickles down to its population. When I talk about oil, I’m talking about society, economy, politics. I’m talking about a nine-year-old kid completely fluent on the many applications of oil—plastic bottles, polyester, chewing gum—yet ignorant about the fact that avocado seeds can be boiled to dye fabric a pink color. I’m talking about a government choosing to import food, instead of growing its own, because it has money, sometimes, when the price of oil is high, and then when it’s not, as now, in 2020, people famish.
This project requires experimentation and research around avocado seeds as a material, but also research and looking for the best ways to convey these realities of oil states and the specific case of Venezuela. I was supposed to present the project in September, at the London Design Biennial, but it’s now been postponed to 2021. I made two thousand and twenty-two bricks out of avocado seeds in the past several months—an important number in Venezuelans’ collective consciousness—and I’m now in the process of creating and editing audiovisuals and written components for it.