The artist Yee I-Lann (Malaysia, 1971) has referred to indigo as a “shared global language”. I-Lann has incorporated the pigment to various of her works. In her Orang Besar series (2010), the artist merges photography and batik together in an attempt to expand both mediums. Within the series, the work Fluid World combines Japanese indigo dye on Chinese silk using the Malay batik technique to talk about influence and resistance. It shows a map of the Southeast Asian region, particularly the oceans that surround Southeast Asia mainland. Fluid World is a map about exchange across the region, understanding oceans as highways of knowledge. It is also a map about resistance and the choice of batik is not fortuitous; batik is a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to a piece of fabric and it is originally from Indonesia although now is found in other places such as West Africa. Dye doesn’t infiltrate the waxed areas, resisting that way the influence of the colouring process, but it does enter the cracks. I-Lann is interested in the poetics of the batik crackle as a place of hybridisation. The artist utilises this symbolism to talk about Southeast Asia as a cultural melting pot favoured by the ebbs and flows of the seas.
It’s been seen that indigo is used largely for dying textiles, traditionally considered to be a space for the feminine, and in fact, when looking back at the history of art, traces of women’s voices across the globe tend to be found in the visual language of textiles. Yet the male artist Aboubakar Fofana (Mali, 1967) who fell in love with the technique of indigo dyeing at a young age, is a guardian of this ancestral knowledge at the same time that he experiments with the traditional uses of the pigment in his oeuvre. In the work of the Malian, we also find the themes addressed by the artists above, that is communion with nature, time and atemporality, and spirituality. For Fofana, his practice functions as a conduit to the divine. The artist was one of the participating artists at documenta 14 in Greece 2017 with his work Ka Touba Farafina Yé – Africa Blessing, an installation consisting of 54 live sheep, one for each of the countries composing Africa, dyed with natural indigo. This project reflects on the divine and the paradoxical reality of migration. On the divine because sheep are a revered animal as it is a source of food and clothing. And on the paradoxical reality of migration because, on one hand, it is a traumatic experience having to leave behind one’s country and the loved ones to travel on to the unknown facing a multitude of perils, and on the other, the migratory process only brings richness into to country the travellers settle in.
Circling back to Yee I-Lann’s consideration on Indigo being a “shared global language” and the metaphor of the batik crackle, indigo dye withstands modernity and the fast pace of life. Yet through conceptual art, it moves beyond the handcraft realm, creeping into the art world and allowing for experimentation and expansive creativity.
Raquel Villar-Pérez is an academic, art curator, and writer, interested in post and decolonial discourses within contemporary art and literature from the socio-political Global South. Her research focuses on the work of women artists addressing notions of transnational feminisms, social and environmental justice, and experimental formulas of presenting these in contemporary art.