What happens when you invite teenagers to take over your design studio?
That’s what Alex Proba—a multidisciplinary artist known for her distinctive use of layered, abstract shapes—did for her latest rug collection. After decades of designing home goods for her own store and creating art for companies like Google, Louis Vuitton, and Rag & Bone, Proba decided to give young women from Ghana the reins to her practice. She introduced them to the principles of color and shape, then encouraged them to come up with their own paintings. These images were transformed into rugs, which are now available for sale on Proba’s store, with all the proceeds going back to the creators’ school.
Proba, who is German and works from a studio in Portland, Oregon, had already been working with young people in the U.S. In 2019, she launched Little Proba, a project designed to introduce children in Portland and New York to the process of making the kind of colorful, cutout paper collages that have been the hallmark of her work. The resulting artwork was also made into rugs, whose proceeds went to Save the Children and the Young Center for Children’s Immigrant Rights, garnering praise in the press. They ended up selling well in the midst of the pandemic, when people were sprucing things up with cheerful home decor.
Proba says that in her own work, she draws by hand, then digitizes the images so she can change the colors and move shapes around. But this can result in second-guessing and overthinking each piece of the artwork. “I was fascinated by what happens when you set children free to pursue a design project like this one,” she says. “They create on instinct, and their work ends up being far more exciting. It’s a far more authentic form of self-expression.”
This year, the Toni Garrn Foundation—a nonprofit devoted to closing the gender gap in education in Africa—reached out to Proba about doing a similar project with high school girls in Ghana. Proba was immediately intrigued. “I loved the cause, but I was also interested to see how these young women’s culture would influence the art they would end up making,” she says.
Since the pandemic was still raging, Proba conducted a series of virtual workshops with 27 students at the Wioso Senior High School. She showed them the library of shapes she regularly used in her work and explained how she picked colors to make a visual statement. The young women then went on to create their own paintings. On one level, they bear a resemblance to Proba’s style, featuring floating abstract shapes.
But Proba was particularly fascinated by how these pieces differ from her own art. “The girls used much bolder color palettes that are drawn from their own culture,” she says. “The shapes, too, were different: They used figures and patterns that are reminiscent of Ghanaian artwork. But at the same time, these pieces are entirely their own. They’re an opportunity for them to express themselves through their art.”
Proba took a painting from each student and had it made into a rug by a women’s collective in India. The rugs are made of New Zealand wool and bamboo silk, with prices starting at $425. You can also buy posters for $68.
Many girls in Africa aren’t able to get an education because of poverty or because they are too far from the nearest school. The Toni Garrn Foundation wants to give young women the support and infrastructure they need to attend school, like boarding houses and healthcare. In addition to helping support the school financially, the partnership with Proba is designed to send the message that an education isn’t just about learning to read and write. It’s also about finding new forms of self-expression—or even ways to support yourself.
“I didn’t grow up believing I could be an artist or a designer,” says Proba. “I want to give young people the idea that they can pursue design as a profession. There are ways to make a living from art.”