John Nomesqui is a visual artist and sculptor who explores “repairing” trees as a metaphor for deforestation’s impact and the broken relationship between the man-made and the natural world. We spoke with him about his work, and his interest in the Amazon.
The loom trees are gorgeous. How did you come up with this idea merging trees with textiles? (Is it possible to get an English translation of your notes about repaired felled trees?). What is the story behind Repair Felled Trees?
The trunk of the trees, that is to say, its body, is a vegetal tissue. That idea resonated with me so deeply that I related the trunk of a tree to the paper textiles that I had made in previous works. At the same time, in 2017, the different media revealed a large amount of news about extensive deforested natural areas in different places on planet Earth. Observing that reality, I asked myself, in what way is it possible to repair a felled tree? As I had been making paper textiles on some vertical looms of different sizes made by me in a traditional way, I decided to adapt a natural segment of felled tree as a vertical loom, and that was how I began to repair the segment of felled trees with textile fiber from paper, passing the fiber under and over the warps attached to the natural tree segment.
One day, when I was “repairing” a segment of a felled tree that I had found on a street in the city where I live –Bogotá–, my eight-year-old son entered and asked me what I was doing. I told him the purpose of my work and then he wanted to do the same. Seeing a small child trying to repair a felled tree is a deeply moving image. Deforestation and its impact on the natural environment is a reality that present and future generations will have to face.
In 2018, as a result of a mandate of the mayor of Bogotá, a large number of healthy trees that inhabited the public space of the city were cut down, as a protest I picked up a segment of one of the felled trees and took it to the main square of the city where the mayor’s office and the senate are located. There, in front of those two government institutions, I carried out an action to repair a felled tree. As the action was carried out in the open air, on that occasion I did not use paper textile fiber but textile fiber made from recycled clothing. Two people approached the action and asked me what I was doing and I told them the reason and purpose of the action. The two people then volunteered to help repair the felled tree segment. In this way they joined this protest action. When I finished the action, I left the tree segment there. The next day, the sculpture had disappeared.
That same year, the felling of trees continued in different areas of the city by order of the mayor. One of the areas where trees were felled was close to the headquarters of the National Pedagogical University of Colombia. At that time I was collaborating with research on phenomenology, body and performance with the Philosophy and Teaching of Philosophy research group. Looking at the felled trees, cut into segments, they looked like cut bodies scattered along the city streets. So, understanding the anger, sadness and frustration felt by some student members of that research group, we decided to carry out a performative action of symbolic repair of felled trees.
In 2019 I made the installation Loom Trees for the Art in Context exhibition sponsored by the Department of Visual Arts of the Faculty of Arts of the Javeriana University –Bogotá, Colombia–. The theme of the exhibition referred to the realization of dialogic projects between artistic creation in response to the conceptual axes of “Integral Ecology”, “Reconciliation for the construction of peace” or “Impact on social transformation”. The installation that I presented in that exhibition was made up of a set of natural segments of large felled trees transformed into looms. Those tree-looms expanded their warps to different directions within the art gallery space.
Can you tell me more about your installation called El olor de la guayaba? It looks like people are creating their own art in the sand below the tree and it changes as different people experience it.
Jardín Seco –Dry garden– El olor de la Guayaba –The smell of guava– is a sculptural installation made up of hundreds of kilos of natural seed of the guava fruit (Psidium guajava). The guava tree (Psidium) commonly grows in territories with a tropical climate. The fruit of the guava tree in Colombia is used in a great variety of culinary preparations: juices, jams, sweets such as the “bocadillo veleño”. The guava seeds that come from the industrial production of food based on the guava fruit are discarded, but I have collected them, washed them and dried them under the sun to create a dry Karesansui-style Japanese garden on whose surface I can draw. Now, the action that I do with the seeds, in the place where it is exhibited, consists of spreading the guava seeds on the floor creating a surface of seeds. This surface adapts to the characteristics of the place: sometimes it takes a circular shape, other times it has taken the shape of a square or rectangle. At other times it has completely filled the floor area of a room in an art gallery. Subsequently, I carry out drawing actions by making grooves with my two hands on the surface of the seeds. For example, with the back of my hand, holding it open, I slowly spread the seeds on the floor from one side to the other. Sometimes I perform the drawing actions with the help of two long wooden rakes. The drawing action can last two hours or more.
The installation Jardín Seco –Dry garden– El olor de la Guayaba –The smell of guava– has been exhibited in different places such as art galleries, for example, the art gallery of the Cámara de Comercio de Bogotá (Colombia), there the seeds were scattered around a very tall concrete column resembling the trunk of a large tree. On other occasions I have exhibited it in teaching spaces for children, such as a kindergarten; also, in university and school teaching spaces. Many times, in those spaces people who visit the installation (children, youth and adults) are encouraged to draw with the seeds. When that happens, a space for coexistence and co-creation is settled.
Can you tell us more about your exploration into textiles and using crafts that you learned from a master weaver as well as incorporating natural fibers? Do you see this as a way to bridge past and present as well as the natural world and man-made?
My exploration with textiles began with the transformation of sheets of paper into textile fiber, this is a procedure that is carried out without the use of tools or technological artifacts, it is made with the exclusive use of hands. Also implicit is the idea of making the artwork with residual material. In my case, with paper from different sources, for example, used magazines or recycled paper. This work has become a meditation action that has allowed me to observe the human capacity to transform our own reality. When a white sheet of paper is wrinkled, it is no longer flat or smooth, it is no longer rectangular, it is no longer cold. Now the wrinkled sheet of paper when spread looks more like a cloth and when compressed it looks more like a seed. So, I can say that my first textile exploration with paper consisted of crumpling hundreds of shopping bills and using that material as if it were cloth. With this material I created a men’s suit consisting of a shirt and tie, waistcoat, jacket and trousers with a belt. All made of paper!
In that exploration, I had the idea of making fabrics out of sheets of paper. But that idea took more force with my first trip to the Amazon, when I saw the way in which the members of some indigenous communities transformed vegetable fibers into textile fibers, applying a twisting technique. With that fiber they later wove to make ritual clothing and objects for daily life, such as baskets and hammocks. This is how I learned the twisting technique to make textile fiber. After that trip, I dedicated myself to deepening the use of the twisting technique to transform sheets of paper into fibers of different sizes and thicknesses. For a whole year (2005) I experimented by twisting hundreds of sheets of paper from different sources until I achieved a thickness of the fiber that made it resistant. With the amount of material obtained during that year, I did my degree work in arts. To make a textile requires transforming many sheets of paper into textile fiber. So, I had the need to teach how to transform sheets of paper into textile fiber, initially to my mother and older brother, then my father learned the twisting technique. Currently, he is the one who helps me with the development of this material.
My second trip to the Amazon was in 2009, there I learned from the Colombian master weaver and sculptor Nirko Andrade. Master Nirko taught me different techniques: horizontal loom, Mapuche loom, macramé and basket weaving. In that residency I learned how each technique works using cotton-based textile fibers. We also explored how paper fiber behaved in different loom techniques, but not all techniques are appropriate for that fiber. So, the technique I use most often is the vertical loom technique.
With this technique I managed to make the Oro y Plata -Gold and Silver- series in 2011: a set of twelve paper textiles made on a vertical loom and tapestry technique where I experimented with making textures with the paper fiber and chromatic compositions with the use of pigmented colored sheets, white sheets, magazine sheets, acrylic paint, and gold and silver foil. In this series of works I have raised, from the relationship of the paper textile with the other materials that make it up, a set of questions and concerns about the idea of value that humanity has created on the materials found in nature. I mean, does a tree have so little value to be made into paper? or Do gold and silver really have enough value to be extracted from the interior of the Earth?
Do you see this as a way to bridge past and present as well as the natural world and man-made?
Yes, I think that the process of transformation of sheets of paper into textile fiber and later into textile works of art can be seen as a bridge. This transformation process, when analyzed, allows us to reflect on a reality that was and what that reality is now. I mean, we can appreciate that a tree is now a sheet of paper and that a sheet of paper was a tree before.
The relationship between the natural world and the man-made world of the 21st century has been broken. In ancient times some civilizations tended to maintain a close relationship with the natural world. Today, there are small communities that maintain a close relationship with the natural world. Those communities see in this relationship something important to sustain life, that guarantees to maintain all kinds of life. So, those communities somehow consider the fate of different species of life for the future. And their ways of acting in the face of this need for conservation are reflected in their culture, that is, in their objects, songs, stories and foods. In my case, I create objects, I mean, I create works of art. And I feel the need to create my works considering the environmental historical moment of the present century. It is how I think that I can contribute to the repair of the rupture between nature and culture.
How do you think artists can convey the story of helping Amazon for people who have never been there?
The daily life of human civilization, especially in cities, is progressively detached from the natural world. In the future, and possibly for human generations in the coming decades, this phenomenon will end up being a characteristic feature of everyday life. The question is, do we want that reality for future generations? In my view, it is not just about helping the Amazon, it is about understanding that by helping to preserve the Amazon we are helping to preserve our own life. The preservation of ecosystems that comprise it is a phenomenon that characterizes the Amazon region and other large natural regions on planet Earth. That is an aspect that has benefited the preservation of human life until now.
Now, the aforementioned configures a truth that the human species must attend to, a truth that we must extend globally. I think that to convey the importance of the Amazon for all species of life, including human life, creative networking is necessary. It is necessary to devise systems that connect natural individuals of a species, for example a remote Amazon tree species, with a set of human individuals from a cosmopolitan population of one city. There will always be someone willing to listen and act.
The trees that make up forests and jungles, for example, work in a network. They take care of the species among themselves, and other tree species benefit from that relationship. This sustainable networking model serves as the basis for the creation of my current project which consists of a large-format installation made up of a large number of loom trees. I am doing this installation in my house, it happens that inside my house a forest is growing. I would like several people in different parts of the world to embrace the idea of repairing a tree within their home. And in this way, configure a global -or network- work of art that generates awareness about the links between humans and nature.