In Oaxaca, indigo is cultivated in the hot, sub-tropical climate along the southern coast in a town called Santiago Niltepec on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. A leafy plant, it is usually found in the band around the world along the equator. For example: Africa. India. Japan. South Carolina. There are exceptions, as this Indigo Around the Globe exhIbition at the Albuquerque Museum describes the works of Scott Sutton, who is growing and dyeing with indigo in Taos, New Mexico, where I live when I’m not in Oaxaca. Nikesha Breeze, also from Taos, explores her own identity through Negro Cloth, the root of American blue jeans.
I love indigo. I look for it and collect it. i wore an indigo tunic woven and dyed by Sebastiana Guzman in Pinotepa de Don Luis to my son’s wedding. My sister and I traveled independently to Japan in 2019 on a quest for indigo. Same when I went to Gujarat, India — I had indigo on my mind. I’ve not been to west Africa, but I know Gasali Adeyemo, originally from Kenya who now lives in Santa Fe. He makes stunning shibori cloth that is featured in this exhibition, and that he sells online and at the International Folk Art Market.
Indigo isn’t really a dye. It is a pigment. It adheres to the surface of a fiber — cotton, wool, silk, etc. and requires no mordant (fixative). It is used to stain wood and concrete, too. An indigo bath needs to be kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the delicate process requires oxidization in order to work.
Indigo was the African cloth of royalty. It’s cultivation and harvest and transformation into a dye material was also dependent on the labor of African slaves who brought their knowledge to the Americas, exploited for economic gain by 18th and 19th century planters who exported it to England’s textile industry. At one time, indigo was the second most valuable export to Britain from the Americas.
In North and South Carolina, slaves were given indigo-dyed cloth to wear because of its durability and as a way to distinguished the enslaved from plantation owners. During the Civil Rights Movement, denim was reclaimed by African Americans who wanted to push against the pressure to dress in a way deemed “acceptable” by white peers.
in Japan, indigo jackets were worn by fire fighters because of its flame retardant properties. In the cold north islands cotton didn’t grow, so rough hemp was used to pad layered quilted fabrics that served as jackets and bed coverings. Known as boro, this cloth was pieced using salvaged indigo scraps, held together by stitches called sashiko, and handed down through the generations. A fashion born of poverty, it is now very collectible and priced in the stratosphere.
Early Navajo Dine weavers used indigo in the chief blankets they wove to keep them warm in harsh New Mexico winters.
In Oaxaca, my family, Fe y Lola Rugs, uses indigo in the rugs they weave. They prepare the dye bath and dye hand-spun organic churra wool yarn skeins in small batches to get the most intense color.
Our family also offers natural dye workshops that introduce people to the chemistry of indigo.
i found this exhibition beautiful, comprehensive and satisfying. If you are coming to New Mexico, don’t miss it. Thanks to Nancy Craft for suggesting that I see it.
Artist Laura Anderson Barbata from Brooklyn, NY, uses indigo-dyed cotton brocade, printed cotton and machine embroidery from Oaxaca, to create costumes for stilt dancers. We also saw her work a few years ago at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.
On exhibit through April 24, 2022.
Yes! I’m now back in Taos. Still snow on the mountains.