June 01, 2019

Vanessa Barragão's Upcycled Tapestries - Issue 18

amirisu featured @Vanessa Barragão

Interviewed by Haruko Kohno.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

amirisu featured @Vanessa Barragão


Vanessa Barragão’s work is breathtaking for its eclectic and wondrous mix of fiber art techniques. Her rugs and tapestries that evoke dynamic oceanic and earth landscapes combine hand tufting, latch hooking, crocheting and weaving techniques, all on one surface. In one work, the neatly trimmed rug base resembles a soft seabed from which crocheted pillar corals stand upright, while little knitted cups and richly layered fringes emulate barnacles and sea anemone swaying underwater. The rich sculptural quality of her work is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Vanessa was born in Albufeira in the south of Portugal. Once a modest fishing village and now a bustling beach resort, Albufeira’s rich seaside culture gave the artist ample inspiration. “My contact with the ocean started here. My family and this city has had a profound influence on who I am today,” she states. Watching her grandmothers knit garments, little Vanessa started making clothes for her dolls. She used the waste fabrics found in the house and naturally acquired many of the artisanal techniques that were practiced in her family. She later went on to study fashion and textile design at Lisbon University.

While pursuing her Master’s Degree, Vanessa found herself at odds with the reality of the fashion industry. “I knew fashion design was not my passion. All the production methodologies of the industry were the opposite of what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to create my own work and do exactly what makes me happy.”

The mass textile mass industry is taking its toll on the environment; chemicals are used in fiber treatment and dyeing processes, the machinery requires enormous energy, and produces non-biodegradable trash. These pollutants are affecting ecosystems, and coral reefs are the most endangered of habitats.

After finishing her studies, Vanessa moved to Porto up north where she worked as a designer in a rug factory. She found that the waste yarn produced there, left in lusable condition, was the perfect material to use for her own art work. In the pursuit of a process befitting her ideals, she decided to creatively upcycle scrap materials and give life to new work. “The possibilities for recycling are endless. If you can upcycle, that’s an incredible thing. I wouldn’t feel right creating something I would know to be bad for our planet,” she says.


Vanessa opened her studio in 2014 and has since focused on creating large-scale fabric artworks. Her themes include coral reefs, oceans, the earth and the moon. While Vanessa’s works are often colorful and pulsing with life, her outlook on nature is not just utopian. Take for example, “Bleached Coral” (2017), which uses wool and felt in muted colors of white, beige and cream. At first glance, the colors appear serene and comforting, but this is a rendition of a bleached coral reef, a ghostly reminder of the effects of global warming. “Healthy coral reefs have strong colors like a garden. But this piece represents corals that have started to die. I try to show this process because this is exactly what’s happening to our environment now,” she states.

A typical day in Vanessa’s life begins with a bike ride from her home to her studio in downtown Porto. Surrounded by yarns in her sunlit studio, Vanessa focuses on creating something new with each piece she makes. She plans her ideas around colors and themes, but never prepares a sketch beforehand. “Following a drawing takes away my creativity. I feel really happy when I ‘discover’ the work for the first time as I'm making it,” she explains. To wrap up the day, she meets with friends to catch a beautiful sunset.

Living this ideal creative routine, Vanessa is now working on a project that is to be unveiled in July. “It’s a surprise,” she says, and elaborates no further. We can imagine that her new work will be yet another powerful piece representing her unflagging passion and artistic sensibility. Along with her fans around the world, the artist herself must be looking forward to discovering what this new piece will be.