60 Levon Kafafian

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Born New York, NY, 1988 / BA (Anthropology), Wayne State University; BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit

The art of weaving has long inspired metaphors for nothing less than the nature of human existence — from the mythic Fates, literally weaving each individual’s destiny, to Ishmael’s musing in Moby Dick that the “mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.” The age-old link between weaving and living is of paramount significance to Levon Kafafian, a young artist and teacher for whom this ancient way of making is at the center of a vital, unfolding, multimodal practice — a practice that seeks to connect people more deeply to the natural world, one another, and their own lived experience.

Kafafian is a skilled craftsman, a deft weaver of sensitive, distinctive fabrics that revel in their handmade quality — see, for instance, the imperfect, entangling intricacies of 2012’s Spirit of Spring and Black Forest. But for Kafafian, objects — no matter how soulful — are inert, ineffective; they only become activated when used. “One of the reasons I started weaving was to move away from mass production and be more in tune with sustainability,” he says, “but as time went on, I realized that I was still just making stuff.”

Kafafian continues to make stuff and, at the Fringe Society, his loom-filled home and studio, to teach others how to do the same. But more often than not, what he makes now has a function, whether protective (as in his numerous scarves and shawls), ceremonial (as in the fabrics, garments, and pottery produced for his ongoing series of interactive performances), or else as constituent elements of short video pieces. The work in the latter two categories at once depends on Kafafian’s foundational weaving and notably departs from it, engaging participants in ways that objects alone never could.

In his 2015 video trilogy Interlacing, for instance, Kafafian animates the act of weaving in support of another, personally developed metaphor: textile processes as life cycle. Endless Becoming, the first of the trilogy, is an entirely digital rumination on gestation created using textile drafting software, in which the artist devised a design, then repeatedly stepped it forward and shifted it, overlapping and animating the resulting patterns in layers that pulse, expand, contract, and drift. Unbound and Undone, meanwhile, inspired by the death of Kafafian’s mother, is a sensuous, close-up look at the unraveling of a piece of fabric — a duplicate, in fact, of the burial shroud he wove for her. As installed, each of the works that make up Interlacing contained additional textile elements: Unbound and Undone, for instance, was accompanied in the gallery by the pile of unwound fabric depicted, as well as a bowl of incense that gallery-goers were invited to light.

That invitation marks the first time that Kafafian encouraged participation in his work, an engagement he has continued to develop into what he terms “participatory rituals.” One such event was Daraz|Amanor (2016), held near the Spring Equinox, in which the artist, draped in a handmade costume inspired by Ottoman-era womenswear, invited people to consider what had recently died in their lives, “and from that death, what seed emerged to create new growth?” Participants wrote their responses on strips of fabric and tied them to cords strung above their heads.

Kafafian says that through such rituals, he hopes to provide “alternative perspectives,” and to help people see that “things are possible between the notions that they carry.” He also wants to introduce some magic into their lives. Inspired by a desire to take weaving “into the dark,” he has recently been staging nighttime performances that incorporate installations made with reflective thread. Related work includes Nightweaving (2016), a performance at the nightclub Tires, during which he wove on a large frame loom, dazzling partygoers who realized that they could make the thread glow by shining their phones onto it, as well as In the Garden By Loomlight (2016), an immersive installation created during this year’s Sidewalk Festival. He has also been known to don traditional Armenian costume, serve Arabic coffee, and read participants’ fortunes in the grounds.

Kafafian’s Armenian heritage is a strong influence in his work, but so is a self-described liminality. After all, despite being steeped in his parents’ cultural traditions, he was born and raised in the US. As a queer artist, he also comfortably embodies both the masculine and the feminine. (“Women’s work,” he says with pride. “It’s what I do.”) Ancient/contemporary, craft/fine art, studio/social practice: Kafafian is most at home in the spaces between.