We Who Seek: María-Elena Pombo | Fragmentario

María-Elena Pombo is the inspiring woman behind Fragmentario. Born in Venezuela and now based in New York City, Pombo reimagines substances like avocado seeds, seaweed, oyster shells, and found objects as materials that can be used to dye fabric, make clay, leather, or fuel and more. Her explorations through many mediums sparks conversations around history, geography, and globalization. We are very excited to interview her in our We Who Seek series.
Space coat, ivory plaid + taupe plaid

Let’s start at the beginning—Can you take us to the moment when you discovered that avocado seeds can be the foundation of so many different art forms and everyday uses? 
In 2013, when I had just graduated from Parsons’ fashion design program, I was helping my partner with a project and he mentioned that onion skins and walnut shells could be used to dye textiles. After some initial skepticism on my end, we started researching and experimenting and learning about different plants, insects and minerals that had historically been used to dye textiles. I became obsessed with the fact that natural dyes had once been such an integral part of all cultures across the world and that this knowledge had been mostly lost through the pass of time.

I learnt about avocado seeds early on in this research process and this one plant hit an even stronger note on myself. I am originally from Venezuela and in our family home there was an avocado tree that had some sort of protagonist within the family. I thought I knew this plant well, but learning that color could be extracted from it proved me wrong. I became very curious. This personal interest, mixed with the fact that this plant has been going through a very intense fame/infamy during the last years, made it interesting for me to explore. The fact that avocado consumption is so high around the world means that I have access to a lot of them, since I collect my seeds from restaurants.

In 2018, I had a particularly large batch of avocado seeds and I started grinding them into a powder as I felt they would occupy less volume. The result was a sand-like material that reminded me of some beaches in Venezuela that have pink sand. I became obsessed with the idea of an avocado seed civilization and started testing what things I could do with this “sand” and what stories I could tell with these experiments.

At Seek, we also leave no waste behind in our work. Any leftover fabric scraps will become a necklace, notebook, eye mask, pajama set and so forth. Your work transforms what some would consider to be compost / waste into very functional uses, like avocado seed electricity and avocado seed oil powered cars. How has the response been from others to your mission? 
The avocado seed civilization I mentioned before, later evolved into a speculative design project called ‘La Rentrada’. It re-imagines an avocado-seed centered economy, as a way to reimagine a post-petroleum Venezuela. Avocado seeds not as a commodity, but as a catalyst of transformation.

Some of the explorations of this project re-imagine avocado seeds as a material to make alternative versions of clay, bricks, leather, plastic, and maybe the two experiments that get the most attention, avocado seed electricity and the car powered with avocado seed oil. 

These propositions are, as you say, functionals, but they exist in a sort of ambiguous fiction. Sometimes I meet people that want to understand if these propositions are real or fantasy, and to me, they are both. 

I showed this project at the 2021 London Design Biennale and it won the Theme Medal. I developed the concept of the avocado seed economy as a mirror of Venezuela’s petroleum economy (Venezuela has been almost entirely dependent on its export of oils for the past 100 years). The project works as a sort of Trojan Horse and I have been able to have many more conversations about Venezuela than if I would have just been explicit about the fact that I wanted to speak about Venezuela.

Page Shirt, Matcha StripeYou just came back from a trip to Venezuela to work on a project after 8 years of not being home. How was that for you and what did you learn? Do you think that you could do a trip like that again? 
I had not been able to go back home in a long time for different bureaucratic reasons related to the governments of both Venezuela and the USA. I was there working on a project commissioned by a Danish company that will be released later in the year. This made my return home particularly exciting (and stressful). It was the first time for me creating a project back home and working with a Venezuelan team. I’m hoping I can have more work like this that would allow me to return home more often. 

I was afraid about the possibility that I would feel out of place or that it would be a sad experience, since most of my family and friends have left the country (around 20% of the population has left in the last 10 years or so). However, I met many people on this trip and it was very inspiring to see how a new generation is paving their way, in the middle of a very complicated context.

I went with my family to the Amazon for the first time ever and it was an overwhelming experience. I grew up seeing images of the places I visited and it was very surreal to finally be there in person and to share this with my parents and my brother, who also don’t live in Venezuela anymore.

We love your thoughtful and unique work! Where does your inspiration come from?
Everywhere really. The news, materials, processes, history, legends, science, nature, people. Most of my projects inform each other, as I have a core group of materials that I have been exploring for many years from many different angles.

Can you tell us a little bit about your process of creation? 
My work so far has been around materials that exist both in my previous life in Venezuela and my current life in NYC. Avocado seeds, seaweed, seashells, water. I like to work with materials from nature as they hold the longest histories, and because different people can connect with them from their own experience.

I have a very close relationship with the materials I work with and I spend long periods of time with them. Reading about them and learning about the histories intertwined with them. Experimenting with them and understanding how they behave, what they want to do and what they don’t. These processes inform my projects and it means I’m always learning. I never decide beforehand what I want to do with them, but it comes through this process.

Page Shirt, Matcha Stripe

Is there any particular artist that has influenced your work and career?
I feel a very raw kinship towards Armando Reverón,Yeni & Nan, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Richard Serra, Cristo & Jeanne Claude. My more conscious influences, in terms of resolving ideas, have come from music, literature and films. Some important ones are Los Prisioneros, Alejandro Cabrujas, and Margot Benacerraf.

Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration? 
I think the best inspiration comes when I’m not actively seeking.

At Seek, we value personal style as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression. How would you describe your personal style? 
I’m running around between places a lot, so whatever is comfortable. Normally clothes with volume. A big coat in the winter and big dresses. I have a small collection of baskets that I use as bags, as I can never find bags that I like.

What’s the most recent piece of art you’ve felt moved or inspired by—whether a book, a film, a painting, an exhibit, etc.?
I recently watched a short film called ‘Tepuyeras’ that made me cry quite a bit. It documents the first all-women expedition to climb a Tepui, a type of flat-topped mountain made out of the oldest sedimentary rock in the planet that is only found in the Amazon.Novel Pants, Matcha Stripe

What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from? 
Many years ago, I was hesitating about an important life change I wanted to make but was scared to do. I had been emailing with a friend about it and one day, after trying a lot of gentle love, he told me that I always had my next life. I needed someone to shake me up a little bit. I go back to this a lot whenever I find myself afraid.

Are there any projects coming up that you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
I’m going through a moment of change, trying to make time to understand and reframe my work. For the past year, I have been part of NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for art, design, and technology, and recently I started a fellowship at the Bronx Museum. Both have been very helpful so far in understanding possible futures and meeting others with interdisciplinary practices.

This coming April, I’ll be showing work related to ‘La Rentrada’ in Milan at SaloneSatellite. I’ll be returning to Italy later in the summer to do a residency and a public art project in a tiny medieval town in the Alps. I love Italy and it has been a very important place for my career since the beginning, so I’m very excited to be able to spend time there this year.

What are you seeking more of this year?

How can we share you and your work with our readers? 

Instagram: fragmentario_
Website: fragmentario.co
Photographer: Griffin Moore | oldbrownearth

Novel Pants, matcha stripe

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published