/ 23 September 2008

Dark beauty

The Indigo Story, an exhibition of textiles and crafts at the Sandton Art Centre, traces the history of indigo, a plant that produces the most remarkable of dyes. Indigo’s history drips as much dark beauty as it does suffering and pain and its breathtaking beauty is acknowledged in its moniker ”the king of all dyes”. But it is also called ”the devil’s dye”, acknowledging its other side.

Voltaire alluded to this history when he wrote in the 18th century how ”one hundred thousand slaves, black or mulatto, work in sugar mills, indigo and cocoa plantations, sacrificing their lives to gratify our newly acquired appetites for sugar, cocoa, coffee and tobacco”.

The Indigo Story traces the colour’s 5 000-year journey and is part of Shared Histories: The Indian Experience in South Africa. ”Personally I am crazy about indigo,” says the exhibition’s curator, Anjana Somany, enthusiastically.

”My intention was to bring out the see-saw witnessed by indigo,” she says.

”The spirit of my presentation remained that indigo was the hallowed dye of antiquity because it was truly unique and special,” she says. She has done this by excavating its different uses and applications from 5 000 years ago. The exhibition encapsulates the dye’s journey in an accessible form. ”It is once again regaining its lost glory,” she says of its resurrection because of the contemporary needs for eco-friendly options.

Indigo comes from plants belonging to a legume called Indigofera, a subtropical shrub that produces a blue dye. The plant’s most commercial variant is native to Asia although other species are found in Africa and the Americas.

It is an adaptable dye which shouts its unique identity and yet comfortably works with other colours. In the gallery I was fingering a posh, very light, see-through blue fabric with brown circles. Right above me, light was filtering through a glass roof and it reflected on the cloth.

The brown stains looked like clotted blood and this reminded me of the dye’s sad history including that of the slave plantations in the United States. From there we get the music genre, the Blues. And let’s not forget the Bengal famine, a famine in which 10-million people died because people were forced to cultivate indigo, neglecting food crops.

The modern ambience of the posh Sandton gallery doesn’t quite take away its mystical appeal apparent in the scarves, embroidery, practical carry-bags and even wedding mats. So many point out that indigo was taboo for the upper castes who had to purify themselves whenever they came into contact with anyone wearing it. In Africa its secret recipe was known only to a few — it was worn by kings and queens and during special rituals.

In the gallery there is a Christian symbol of a colourless cross to signify its mystical resonance.

Some of the cloths have pictorial representations of people, animals and nature. Somany says that the use of narrative feeds into the centrality of oral tradition in the recounting of India’s history. ”Our oldest scriptures, the Vedas, are still referred to as Shruti — which literally means ‘that which is heard’,” she says. ”To reveal such a complex wisdom, innovative storytelling was required. Narratives with graphic explanations and symbolism were painted on handmade cloth to delight and engage the viewer.”

Such techniques are also used in contemporary fabric art to tackle modern themes and social problems such as ”education for the girl-child, child-marriage and Aids-awareness messages”.

When we talk about the shared history, Somany says the know-ledge of indigo dyeing and tie-dye has been practised independently in India and in Africa.

”It could be called a shared history as there must have been an unknown connection at some point.” As she has noted, the common history stems from having the same European colonisers.

Somany says that in India indigo was ”completely integrated with the masses and no heirarachy was specified for the users”. This is apparent in its diverse use in a Nilambari Pallu fabric on which pure gold is used and exquisite saris (Gadwal, Shibori saris) and workman-like antique jackets for farmers.

Indigo has been appropriated in Peru, Thailand and Malaysia where it is used as a thick Sarawak cloth and as the embroidered kantha cloth. It is also used to dye the denim jeans made famous by Levi Strauss.

Appropriately, Time Magazine called the Levi 501 jean the best fashion item of the 20th century.

The Indigo Story runs at the Sandton Arts Centre until October 5. For details of Shared Histories: The Indian Experience in South Africa visit www.indiansouthafrica.com