If you shout the loudest do you always get heard? For artist Alexandra Kehayoglou activism that leads to sustainable change can take other forms. Her silent activism “is to do with being authentic in your beliefs and realistic in your actions”, and the landscapes of her carpet work on the effects of deforestation and other environmental devastation speak in a volume that is no less clear.
Alexandra Kehayoglou - Santa Cruz River - 2017
Activism at its route can be described as a collective effort that is carried out to make shifts in social, political and economic reform. It is executed with purposeful energy and can take many forms, from the gathering of crowds on the streets to people communally petitioning through letter writing. Historically activists have also used art, typography and fashion to propagate their messages in the hope of gaining support. Now contemporary activist groups make use of social media, and other technologies, in order to expand civic engagement and gain a larger global audience.
These new methods of activism have seen messages spread more rapidly across the world and have led to an escalation of events such as the “storming of the Capitol” in Washington DC, Black Lives Matter protests in cities worldwide, and rioting in response to citywide curfews imposed by governments in attempts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The acceleration of technology-based activism has seen both positive and negative changes occur in politics and individual awareness for the needs of local communities. It is also true that such forms of activism have become more visible, more forceful, and in some cases more susceptible to fake news and algorithmic manipulations.
For the Buenos Aires born visual artist Alexandra Kehayoglou, these more aggressive manifestations of activism have, over the years, become unrelatable, more about heroics than achieving a sustainable change. She explains that for her these recent forms of activism “create a loud noise that hides a message and can get misunderstood through shares, re-tweets and timelines”.
Kehayoglou prefers to use silent activism in her work to make a difference. Silent activism as she terms it, “is to do with being authentic in your beliefs and realistic in your actions. It is about reflecting on changes inwardly that can outwardly be mirrored in the world around us.” As a self-proclaimed introvert, Kehayoglou feels she can explore ways to communicate through her art that are different to the loud noise of social media. Her works have the potential to subtly affect the subconscious of her audiences.
Kehayoglou’s medium is textiles, and the carpet works she began developing in 2006 have become renowned outcries against the effects of deforestation and other environmental devastation. Her mission is to translate the information she collects from a specific location, “by translating it visually and sharing its fabric in order to offer a different perspective that interacts with a spectator”. Textiles are as much a part of her history as the places and landscapes she works with are part of her identity.
© Alexandra Kehayoglou
And activism has changed Kehayoglou’s approach to the work she does. Ever since she was young, she can remember her strong focus on fairness and the way things should be. She tells of the deep sorrow she felt for all the injustices she saw – in nature and the environment around her. Her personal journey into activism began when she created a huge tapestry commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria for the 2017-18 Melbourne Triennial. The hand-tufted textile piece, Santa Cruz River (2016-17), documents the last free flowing wild river in Argentina that is the proposed site for two major hydroelectric dams. At the start of this project, Kehayoglou knew that in order to truthfully depict the story of the land she first had to spend time in it. The expedition forced her to disconnect from the modern world and open up to what the river had to offer. On the trip she encountered activist Sofia Nemenmann, whose dedication to defending the river pushed Kehayoglou and the rest of her team to start thinking more deeply about the work they do and the platform they have to make powerful changes.
Research trip © Alexandra Kehayoglou
The Santa Cruz River project has become a pivotal work for Kehayoglou; it’s not just for the story it tells but also for what this means to the way she now works and the actions she takes during her artistic process. Since then, she has explored other landscapes closer to home in Buenos Aires, as well as working to become an advocate for the women in the fabric industry whose voices are underrepresented.
In an earlier work, Elpiniki (2014), produced in collaboration with artist José Huidobro, Kehayoglou explored a family heirloom that took the form of an Ispartan traditional carpet covering a scaled-up antique shoe. The sculptural work represents her grandmother’s history in the family textile business. She talks about how she was “making the work with a family karma on her back”. Her grandmother and grandfather met in an arranged marriage that created a bond between Europe and Asia, crossing over oceans and traditions. The shoe represents the life her grandmother left and the life she started.
Elpiniki, 2014, in collaboration with José Huidobro.
In October 2020, Kehayoglou chose to turn Elpiniki (a Greek word meaning hope and victory) into a performance piece designed to demonstrate against the proposed mega-dams for the Santa Cruz River during the virtual public hearings. The performance saw Kehayoglou row the work along the Paraná de las Palmas, a river near to where she lives.
In its performance, the piece connected Kehayoglou’s social activism with her environmental activism. To explain the connection between the stories of Elpiniki and Santa Cruz River, the artist poetically notes that “We will walk on you with awe, we will walk on you with reverence.”
Panorama, 2017, installed at Jut Foundation/Taipei, Taiwan, courtesy of JUT Group
When it comes down to it, Kehayoglou is simply a woman from South America, Europe, and Asia Minor, with Indigenous roots. In truth is it this combination of different genes, genetic lines and landscapes that helps her to talk about what it means to overcome difficulties, allowing her to make works that relate to various audiences. She wants to fight for the causes that are personally important using her family background and artistic gifts. Like her grandmother did for her mother and in turn her mother did for her; she wants to produce work that is fruitful and has an active role in positive transformations.
Alexandra Kehayoglou - Refugio para un recuerdo, 2012, textile (handtuft system) retrieved wool
Kehayoglou believes in the power of silent activism to subtly make changes that can stand the test of time. The activism she does can be seen in the stories she weaves into her textiles that her audience physically engage with. Her methods of promoting change are therefore focused on what is tangible rather than confronting. “We humans are made of textile, so we relate. The information and messages I have to share are translated, like in osmosis, from the fabric to the skin”. While Kehayoglou accepts that forms of activism on social media, and in the streets can achieve a certain form of change, she finds it hard to relate to these methods.
Silent activism doesn’t mean that as an artist Kehayoglou is muted about what is important. It simply means that she is consciously working with more subtle movements that she believes will eventually lead to permanent, meaningful and real world changes both environmentally and socially. The artist is currently working with her team to research, develop and form a new project that is focused on the direct landscape around her home in Buenos Aires. A landscape that she has seen become increasingly moulded by the needs of commercial and industrial trade, whilst it battles against the devastation caused by last year’s devastating forest fires.