Woven Water: Submarine Landscape, 1994
María Fernanda Cardoso, Colombian, born 1963, active Australia
Dried starfish with metal wire
Dimensions variable
Museum purchase funded by the Caribbean Art Fund and the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Exploring Contemporary Art from Latin America

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Brainstorm observations
  • Explore together
  • Analyze experiences
  • Understand messages
  • Think about discoveries
  • Your connection to the work of art









Language Arts


Social Studies


Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

Woven Water: Submarine Landscape, 1994, by Colombian-born, currently Australia-based, María Fernanda Cardoso is composed of 26 clusters of dried, preserved starfish suspended in constellations installed in various groupings of similar size and color. The starfish are strung together point-to-point with metal wire to form oversized, geometric shapes that pull the viewers in for closer inspection. They appear as drawings in space that cast fragmented shadows on the floors, walls, and on the other clusters themselves, while light shifts through the negative spaces in the work of art. This juxtaposition of negative and positive space creates a sense of darkness and mystery within the delicate net of objects.

This is not the typical arrangement of specimens that are more commonly seen in a science museum or a zoo. The installation creates an environment of a thriving and enigmatic undersea world. Some clusters suggest invisible ocean currents while others appear to be opening and closing as if in a choreographed dance. However, the arrangement is entirely unnatural. The starfish were once alive, but it is only through their death that Cardoso can create these delicate forms. The scale, intricacy and oddity of the sculptures draw viewers into the work. Once close, they realize the “beauty” within the work actually stems from their death.

Woven Water: Submarine Landscape emphasizes contrasts between the natural and the geometric form as well as between motion and stasis. Throughout her career, Cardoso has increasingly explored the intersection of art and science. Her work is influenced by research into the fractal theory as a natural phenomenon that is based on patterns that repeat at every scale. In her sculptures, Cardoso references this theory and nature’s ability to create complex forms from simple rules of a cellular-like growth pattern.

Throughout her career, Cardoso has experimented with creating abstract objects from organic and nontraditional materials such as gourds, dirt, bones, and shells as well as preserved insects, frogs, reptiles, and other marine life. She prefers to work with local materials drawn from the specific sites where she will install her sculptures. Since Woven Water: Submarine Landscape was created during an artist’s residency in San Francisco, the artist purchased the starfish at a local souvenir shop. She states, “Starfish formations will remind us of strange flowers from enchanted gardens, from those we used to visit in fairy tales, when we were little.”  Additionally, the intense smell of objects themselves evoked memories of algae and decaying ports.

While Cardoso invites the visitors into her mysterious, undersea setting, the work of art is also a critique of the commodification of nature. The fact that the objects that form the sculpture are purchased from an industry that monetarily benefits off the capture, slaughter and sale of the starfish provides a biting critique of the commercial tourism industry. In fact, the starfish she bought at the San Francisco tourist shop were imported from Asia, adding an additional layer to the critique of global consumerism.

Through this work of art, Cardoso uses the starfish and the mysterious forms they create to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the critical factors that shape their everyday experiences and environments. By examining society’s impact on nature, she addresses the notion that nature is consistently challenged by human interception and alterations. The viewer’s discomfort is a symptom of a deeper anxiety about humankind’s impact on the environment. The contradiction of a water scene without water becomes evermore impactful.

Conversation Starters

  • Describe what you see. How would you describe this to someone who has never seen it? For more detailed observations, visit the variety of views shown at https://mfah.org/art/detail/115580.

  • “Art medium” refers to the art materials or artist supplies that the artist uses to create a work of art.What examples of different mediums/media do you see? Have you seen them before in other places? Where?

  • The artist strung together clusters of dried, preserved starfish. Follow the shapes made by both the starfish themselves and the forms they create when grouped together. How would the groupings appear to change as you view them from different angles?

  • How does the artist give the impression that these starfish appear as drawings in space?

  • What colors do you notice? Are there different values or shades?

  • What types of geometric and organic forms does the artist create by joiningthe starfish together?How are the forms similar and/or different?Are some closed, while others are open? Explain how that impacts your view.

  • Follow several forms’ contour lines (lines that define the form, or outline it) with your eye.How would you describe them? Do they remind you of anything in the natural environment?

  • In what ways do the fragmented shadows reflected on the walls, floors, and other starfish augment the overall composition?

  • As air gently moves through this, how would the shadows shift and change? Infer how that would impact your experience if you were standing within this ever-changing movement. Elaborate.


  • The undulating rhythm and movement of these starfish can inspire an experience similar to being in nature.What experiences in the natural world might these suggest? How is this installation reminiscent of nature, yet still remains an unnatural grouping? Explain.

  • This artist has explored the intersection of science and art throughout her career.How does this installation exemplify something in science that you have studied?Clarify with examples that reference areas in the work of art.

  • The positive space occupied by the starfish themselves and the light shifting through the negative space surrounding them can work together to tell a story.Imagine you are standing or sitting within this, peering through these spaces.How do you feel?What mood is portrayed? What story would it tell?

  • Brainstorm what might have inspired the artist to create this.

  • The artist, María Fernanda Cardoso, entitled this, Woven Water: Submarine Landscape.  Infer why she may have chosen to juxtapose the ideas of weaving, water, submarine and landscape in her title.  Justify with evidence from the work of art.

  • Maria states, “Starfish formations will remind us of strange flowers from enchanted gardens, from those we used to visit in fairy tales, when we were little.” What fairy tale does this remind you of? In what ways? Imagine an enchanted garden with flowers shaped like these starfish creations. Describe what it would look, feel, smell, and sound like.

  • As she invites you into this magical world of starfish, it is interesting to note that Maria bought these starfish in a souvenir shop. Could this work of art serve as a reminder of the ways people affect their environment? How?

  • Would you agree that the artist captures a sense of mystery within this delicate net of starfish?Why or why not?


  • Think-Pair-Share: Refine visual interpretation practices by engaging with works of art in peer collaborations.
  • Activity: Create a miniature 3D gallery that reflects an expereince at the Museum. Have students create 3-4 works of art inspired by works in the collection using materials such as construction paper, wire, clay and other materials.
  • “You’re a Curator:” Use oral and written language to communicate themes and ideas about their gallery of Latin American art.
  • Assessment: Create rubrics for projects.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.