Indigo’s deep midnight blue splashes and flows its way throughout the world and across history.
Artists from Asia, Africa and the Americas have used indigo in various forms and techniques for at least the last 6,200 years, said Josie Lopez, curator of art for the Albuquerque Museum.
One of the seven colors of the rainbow, blue remains one of the rarest naturally occurring colors. Indigo is one of the few organic sources of blue dye.
Opening at the Albuquerque Museum, “Indelible Blue: Indigo Across the Globe” explores the history of that elusive plant from the Navajo Nation to South Carolina to Japan.
Indigo’s famous blue weaves from a rocky history buttressed by trade, colonialism, slavery, globalism and cultural exchange.
“It’s been in the state since the colonial period,” said Leslie Kim, Albuquerque Museum curator of history. “The friar’s robes were dyed with it. It came up the Camino Real via both dye and fabric.”
The labor-intensive process of growing and extracting indigo plants combined with their value led colonial powers to establish indigo plantations in the Southeast, the Caribbean, Latin America and India. The legacy of slavery and India’s 1859 Indigo Revolt reflect its sometimes ugly and violent history. The revolt erupted when farmers rebelled against British planters who forced them to give up their land, working it exclusively for British benefit.
A Japanese farmer’s coat and Indian saris reveal its use in utilitarian clothing. The exhibition includes a rare First Phase Navajo Chief’s blanket and a similar garment from the Ivory Coast as markers of prestige.
Some contemporary artists use the dye in political installations. Enslaved people performed the cultivation and processing of indigo from the 17th to the 19th centuries for European profit. Works by Laura Anderson Barbata and Taos artist Nikesha Breeze reflect this dark history.
Breeze created sculptures titled “Red, White, Black and Blue: An Homage to African American Indigo,” made of ceramic, raw indigo, red iron, cotton and denim. The installation honors the enslaved people who were crucial to the indigo trade, especially in North and South Carolina.
Breeze stumbled upon the sad history of American indigo plantations while she was researching her ancestral roots. She created two altar pieces in an homage to the enslaved people who worked there.
“American blue jeans had its history in what was called ‘Negro cloth,’ ” she explained. “They not only wore the cloth; they made it for themselves. Most of them were only given one pair of pants per year. It was like a uniform.”
Levi Strauss spotted the pants and turned them into a business.
“He added rivets and created a history of American ingeniousness that was literally taken off the backs of slaves.”
Breeze’s altars start with indigo cakes and raw cotton, then climb into Negro cloth growing into Levi Strauss’ jeans.
“At the top are carved ceramic hands and feet with dark black skin dyed blue,” she said.
It wasn’t until the discovery of synthetic dyes around 1880 that the botanical indigo trade subsided.
Many of the exhibition artists such as Rowland Ricketts, Scott Sutton, Mariá Dávila and Eudorado Portillo process their own indigo.
Taos artist Sutton created a hanging indigo map of the Rio Grande Watershed.
“It’s environmentally/ecologically-based stuff,” Sutton said. “I use a lot of mineral pigments that I collect.”
Sutton grows Japanese indigo plants in his Taos greenhouse. He named his website pigmenthunter.com.
“It’s an annual, so you have to collect seeds and let some of it grow to flower,” he said. “The pigment’s in the leaves.”
He strips the leaves from the stems, then places them in a 35-gallon garbage container with water.
“You’re making like a sun tea,” he explained. After about three days, he aerates the dye by blowing into the water with an irrigation tube. Pigment particles settle on the bottom.
Sutton borrowed his seeds from the Indiana artist Rowland Ricketts. His Albuquerque project consists of multiple shades of blue. He based the pattern on U.S. Geological Survey height maps.
Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent policy sprang from watching the Indian farmers cultivate indigo, Kim said.
“Gandhi went to visit the farmers to understand the labor systems tied to British colonization,” she said.
“Indigo was a very important crop to England,” she continued. “They forbade them to plant crops and forced them to grow indigo. It’s a difficult history.”
Indigo weaves its magic throughout cultures and history.
“It’s that deep blue becoming a symbol of prestige,” Lopez said. “There’s no blue without indigo.”