Chilean born and Mexico City-based visual artist reveals her creative process behind her unique textile works.
In her work, Antonia Alarcón explores the affective bonds of memory and empathy. In her practice of textile embroidery she seeks to narrate and highlight experiences through landscapes of multicolored fabrics.
We met with the artist in her studio to learn about her process of dyeing and embroidering with pigments and natural fibers, but also to understand the issues she addresses in her practice.
Where do the ideas for your embroidery come from?
I am working in a project I developed with a scholarship from the FONCA. It is called “Todos los pastos del mundo '' (”All the grasses in the world”) It is a mapping of migratory flows. On one side, it is about the visualization of hard data in a textile format. On the other side, it is about the vegetal migration, since the plants also have migratory conducts. I seek to turn the human migratory experience to metaphors through the vegetal migratory process, which I find pretty and cathartic.
In one of the last pieces that I made for this project; going back to the data visualization. I embroidered one stitch for every person that migrated from the state of Guerrero to work as a laborer.
What is your work process?
In the case of this project, I parted from the maps and its data. I analyzed the map of Guerrero and I noticed that 5600 people moved to Sinaloa, then I did 5600 stitches to represent each person and kept track of it in a notebook in case something interrupts me while I’m embroidering.
What I care most about the process, is the sensation that it produces , that you can see that something is happening, instead of thinking of it as just 5600 people, that it’ll be more than just a number. The effect given by the textures and relief of the stitches is for me a great advantage that complements the visualization of data. It is very real. Also the notion that exists in the collective thought that it is very laborious, gives it great affective force as well.
Actually, I think that the complexity of the textile process is very invisible in general. It is a very slow process, I can spend days or weeks dyeing, ironing the canvas, and making the hem. In general, when I begin embroidering, for me it is till death.
At times I enjoy just taking the fabric and improvising, but lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with the idea of the embroidered drawing. If you do bigger stitches, longer, shorter or in different directions, it gives the sensation that you are drawing. When I am fed up with investigation, I go to the park and just draw directly on the fabric, then I board it. I am very into the versatility of textiles, I think it is like drawing.
Tell us more about the development of this project?
Nowadays I have 5 of 10 maps that compose the series. I like to investigate, and even though at the start I didn’t know where to begin, I did some research and learned about the intense migration from Veracruz to Reynosa and from Chiapas to Quintana Roo. That’s how I carried out my project, because I realized there were other things I cared about the migration phenomenon than just numbers and maps.
I found that some towns in Zacatecas are now ghost towns because of emigration to the United States. Personally, I've never been to Zacatecas, but I looked up the effects of mining there. Based on photos and videos I imagined a landscape, thinking what would be the “color of Zacatecas” in a pigment.
Why did you choose embroidery as the main tool for your work?
It was really intuitive.
While I was studying plastic arts at “La Esmeralda”, I did a project about scars and freckles in the body. That's when I realized that my keloid healing had a very textile shape so I decided to embroider it. At that moment I had to leave Santiago because of a family emergency and I took this project with me. That too I think is very beautiful about it, you can fold it and take it with you.
For embroidery I use a hoop that belonged to my great grandmother, it’s very special to me and you can tell it has many years of use. Neither my grandmother nor my mom wove. They used to say “I do not weave because I am an independent woman” when they had to embroider newly born blankets or things like that. So when I started I used another hoop until one day my grandparent saw me and told me: “I have something for you, this was my mom’s”. He always had a strong textile culture, he loves embroidery and has plenty in his house. My grandmother also has a lot of rugs, so I feel that it is something very important to me. I even taught my mom how to stitch
In that case, how did you choose your color palette?
During my investigation, I focused a lot on the agave plant. I was hooked on how this plant migrated, that’s when I found that they do so by the hand of a bat, so what I did was extract a color palette from two typical agaves from Guerrero, that are el delgado and el papelote.
First I have to get resources to do the pigments. Sometimes I buy it directly in the haberdashery or at times I go to the park and collect vegetable matter myself, such as leaves, bark and seeds or organic products such as the avocado pit that has red and pink pigments. One advantage of this is that they keep a good smell after you’ve dyed. During a residency in Jilotepec I was searching for natural tints and learned to identify tones from natural sources.Indigo comes from the leaves of a plant that are cut, boiled and fermented so that the oxides come out blue, it is a lot of chemistry and I love chemistry. Sure, with beets, all the berries like strawberries, blackberries, all that.
Then to fix the colors I use soy milk and alum. Most of the fabrics keep the pigments inside their proteins, for example wool keeps its color very well.
There are many ways to achieve colors with natural products. The most common method is to boil the fabric in the same water in which the pigment was made and do several baths. I combine many species at the same time because I seek to obtain those stains of tones, not just one uniform color. I am very unorthodox at dyeing.
What is your dyeing process?
First, I have to get raw materials to make the pigments. Sometimes I buy them directly in stores. Sometimes I even go to the park and collect seeds, leaves, bark, or organic products: the avocado pit with reddish and pink pigments. An advantage of this is that they retain their good smell after dyeing. During a residency in Jilotepec, I did research I was researching on natural dyes and learned how to identify shades from natural sources. Indigo comes from the leaves of a plant that are boiled and left to ferment so that the oxide comes out blue, it is a lot of chemistry, and I love chemistry. Sure, with beets, all red fruits like strawberries, blackberries, all that.
Then to fix the pigments, I use soy milk or alum. Most fabrics retain the dye within their proteins; for example, wool holds color very well.
I prefer to use vegetable fibers; that's why I use soy milk. I boil the fabric in soy milk to acquire its proteins; this allows the color to be better fixed. It's a super long process. I can spend up to 3 hours boiling, that's why I used an electric stove for practicality. The same process can be repeated many times to achieve different shades of dyeing.
There are many methods to achieve colors with natural pigments. The most common way is to boil the fabric in the same water where the dye was boiled in and do several baths. I combine several spices simultaneously because I seek to obtain those marks of tones, not a uniform color. I am very unorthodox to dye.
How did you learn that technique to fix the pigments through proteins
Research, and by trial and error I learned how to use the soy milk and the alum. The first time I tried to do a natural dye, I boiled marigold flowers with salt because I thought that would fix the pigment and it worked. Then I tried curcuma and kept experimenting. Later on a friend of mine that knows about dyeing techniques sent me some texts to read more about the process. Here in Mexico there is an ancient tradition of experimental dyeing.
And, how did you learn to embroider?
I learned by myself.
I used to do art direction, and once I had a lot of curtain fabric to spare that I had used for a short film. I intuitively started to embroider and that was it.
At the end it is essentially to pass a needle through the cloth. You just have to take into account that all fabrics react differently, you have to be very careful and focus because humor also influences; if you are in a hurry or flustered, it will show in the product of your embroidery.
There is something about the hand work that I adore. A lot of artists work with seamstresses and that is okay, in my case, I wouldn’t know how to explain my ideas, mainly because of the variety of colors I use.
During the pandemic did you produce any art work?
At the beginning of the pandemic I had a bike accident in which I broke my right wrist so I was in rehabilitation for four months. I had to learn to knit with my left hand to keep producing during that period.
Now I can change hands when I’m tired. Also I began to give workshops via zoom, I really liked that because people are super generous with their personal process. I learn a lot about ideas that they have from their diverse formations. That’s why when people assist my workshops saying they don’t know how to embroider, I tell them to “relax and do whatever they want..”
I feel like the textile practice is very rebellious, my students end up doing incredible reflections with their works.
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