Tracing the practices of Ana Teresa Barboza, Sandra Monterroso, Yee I-Lann, and Aboubakar Fofana, this essay elucidates on the colonial history of indigo dye as well as how contemporary artists from the Global South are giving new life to this famed and unique pigment.
Sandra Monterroso, El Agua Se Volvió Oro, El Río Se Volvió Oro, El Oro Se Volvió Azul, 2019. Courtesy Sandra Monterroso Studio
Indigo in English, añil in Spanish, and adire in Yoruba are the different names that this singular blue pigment extracted from the plant Indigo tinctoria and its many variants has. Textiles and ceramics are the most extended examples of the ancient use of indigo dye in elements of the material culture of these regions. The earliest evidence of indigo was found in a piece of cloth in Huaca Prieta, an ancient Peruvian burial site located in the north of the country, and it is believed to be about 6,200 years old. Nowadays, this multipurpose tincture has also entered the cosmetics industry, and is also used for its medicinal properties.
Like almost with every endemic product to the Global South at the time, the increase in the cultivation of indigo was closely tied to the history of imperial expansion, colonisation, and the transatlantic trade of enslaved africans. Particularly in Latin America and Asia, the pigment extract was highly valued as the world’s finest source of blue. The proliferation of indigo cultivation in plantations became a top priority in the agenda of settlers in these regions as it became an instrument for political influence and a marketable commodity used to feed the European demands on produce from the colonies. In the late 19th century, with the popularisation of blue jeans, the artificial tincture was invented to respond to the rising demand of this dye, provoking a steep decline of indigo crops.
Nowadays, the indigenous use of natural indigo persists even if at a small scale. Contemporary artists across the world incorporate the use of this pigment to their work to reflect on notions of nature and indigenous knowledge, and to interrogate colonialism, and the decolonial turn.
Ana Teresa Barboza, Hilar from Detrás del Textil series, 2018. Source: https://www.anateresabarboza.com
Barboza’s cloth works are a meditation on time.
Ana Teresa Barboza (Perú, 1981) is a multidisciplinary artist who employs principally textiles. She is interested in exploring the provenance of the natural fibres and pigments in connection with the different landscapes where these are found and their peoples, guardians of ancestral knowledges. Barboza uses indigo extensively, a dyeing process that, as if a magic trick, only starts showing the results after you remove the fibres from the mixture. In Detrás del textil – Behind the textile – (2018-19), Barboza intervenes photographic images with textiles, contrasting the immediacy of printing on paper with the laborious and meticulous work of weaving. Ultimately, Barboza’s cloth works are a meditation on time.
Indigenous artist Sandra Monterroso‘s (Guatemala, 1974) video-performative practice addresses the vagueness of temporality. Similarly to Ana Teresa Barboza, Monterroso also finds inspiration in nature and ancient practices of dye that she blends with three conceptual axes in her work: the materiality of the medium, a connection with spirituality and ancestry, and the history of coloniality in Mesoamerica, Abya Yala. In her works, she incorporates natural dyes for their political load – particularly indigo pigment or Mayan blue as it is known in Guatemala, was levelled up to the status of gold during the Spanish colony, as well as for their healing properties, symbolically appealing to the revival and appreciation of Mayan ancestral practices for the definitive healing of the colonial wound.
In her work El Agua Se Volvió Oro, El Río Se Volvio Oro, El Oro Se Volvio Azul (2019), Monterroso appears lying under a large cloth hanging from the wall and on to the floor. The textile is made up of indigo-dyed güipiles, an indigenous garb hand-embroidered by women. This work interrogates extractivist practices in Guatemala that contaminate natural sources of water such as rivers, lakes, and oceans. By turning gold and then blue, the artist metaphorically suggests their initial appeal and consequently, the loss of their healing properties.
Yee I-Lann, The Orang Besar Series: Fluid World, 2010. Image courtesy Silverlens and the artist.
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.