The day Aboubakar Fofana, as a child, was told of the green leaves capable of creating blue colour a proverbial seed was planted in his imagination that he has spent his artistic career nurturing. Fofana left Mali at the age of ten for Paris and makes clear that this childhood memory was story rather than practice. In Paris he read about indigo in the Museum of Mankind, but natural indigo dying was already a lost tradition thirty years ago when, as a young adult, he began to travel through Mali and neighbouring Senegal and Burkino Fasso to glean what knowledge remained of the tradition.
In 2000 Fofana was awarded a prestigious Villa Médicis grant from the French government that supported six months of study and exchange with the master dyer Akiyama Masakazu. He returned again in 2005 and likens the approach to natural indigo dyeing in Japan and west Africa as remarkably similar considering the physical distance separating the cultures. “Japanese culture has Shinto and west Africa animism; they are exactly the same,” he explains. On a pragmatic level, heat, one of the key components to a healthy indigo dye vat comes in spades in both places – hot and dry in his home in Mali and humid in southern Japan were he was based. But there is also a shared sensibility to the life of the dye vat as an entity demanding physical and spiritual nourishment. “In west Africa you say a prayer to the indigo gods to bless a new born indigo vat, in Japan you offer sake to the indigo god to bless a new vat,” he explains of the rituals that inform the process.
Fofana’s portfolio includes a variety of natural dyes, but from his extensive repertoire indigo is by far the most challenging process to master. He explains that natural indigo dyeing means that you are “working with a living organism, you need to check the health of the bacteria every day.” The challenge lies not only in growing the crucial bacterial recipe needed to start the vat, but also the skill that lies in then keeping the vat “alive”. Nine months is considered the typical gestation period for a vat, although Fofana prides himself in nurturing his indigo vats through twelve months of usefulness. Rest, when needed, and a healthy diet of “bran, wheat, honey and mashed banana to encourage the bacterial growth” are apportioned to help optimise the colour and lifespan of each vat.
The intensive demands of the natural indigo process, from harvesting the raw materials to the investment of time needed for the dye process mean that natural indigo dyeing is not a particularly economical process. Synthetic indigo has replaced natural indigo as a dye of choice throughout west Africa because of basic ease of use. While natural indigo is a notoriously temperamental dyestuff and can take decades of experience to master, synthetic indigo offers dyers speed and consistency. The downside is that the synthetic version is as a harsh chemical compound to work with that is far from an environmental ideal.
Fofana’s artistic and design work enjoys a following far beyond his homeland. This support is, in turn, necessary for the financial stability of his business, which is responsible for local employment. Because indigo has an affinity for both cellulous fibres that come from plant matter (such as cotton or linen) as well as protein fibres from animals (such as wool and silk) Fofana can work with locally grown organic cotton initiatives as well as natural fibres shipped to him for specific commissions. Organic farming in Mali set up by the Swiss NGO Helvetas produces cotton which is then hand spun and woven on traditional strip weaving looms by women working in cottage industry set up by Fofana. His work also finds itself in the fashion and interiors sector, for clients such as Donna Karan’s Urban Zen and Edun. When working with designers, natural fibre textiles are often imported for dying, but the demands of indigo mean that large-scale production is never an option.
Fofana refers to the knowledge he has spent his life reviving as a “5000 year old story of ancient technology now given a contemporary language”. Geographically he is well positioned for what is an immense task. Of the 800 known indigofera species, more than 600 thrive in the African continent. Students now travel from all over the world to study at his studio in Mali providing a way to spread the knowledge that will preserve what was the “lost memory of traditional indigo dye.” He is clear that his own knowledge is applied to the worlds of art and design as complimentary practices. “My first love was art more than textile design,” he concedes. “If I want a sustainable business, I need commercial work. Now my employees are my [financial] responsibility. But I need my own personal artwork; the two are linked and I need both ways of working.” Putting the burdens of entrepreneurship aside for a moment, Fofana concludes that it is the mysteries of indigo that continue to fuel his imagination: “I don't know how, in the beginning, green made blue,” he observes of the plant’s magical alchemy. “The first time, I am sure, had to be an accident.”
Selvedge Magazine (issue 49: 65-71)