Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Indigo: A Blue to Dye For


Indigo: A Blue to Dye For

The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester
20 January – 15 April, 2007
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
19 May – 1 September, 2007
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and Hove Museum & Art Gallery
29 September 2007, 6 January 2008

Curated by Dr Jennifer Harris in consultation with Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul, this exhibition illustrates indigo in all its extremes. Perhaps the first great lesson it teaches is a very simple one: indigo is no one thing to one group of people. Instead we learn that indigo is used the world over in an astounding variety of applications with ever changing social, political and cultural significance.

Because oxidization is crucial to the indigo dye process, resist dying techniques (that protect areas of cloth from dye to create pattern) are often used in conjunction with indigo. Helpfully, examples of resist dyed cloth before and after dyeing clearly illustrate several of the techniques on display. But along with these intricate and time consuming examples are the other extreme. Bark cloth from the Solomon Islands, for example, is decorated with a mixture of masticated indigo leaves and lime juice. We learn that the maker simply spat on the bark cloth and created patterns with their fingers.

A replica of what are thought to be the first pair of blue jeans are on display, as are numerous contemporary reincarnations, including the eco-conscious company howies’ revival of natural indigo. Here again it is observed that denim (dyed with natural indigo until the arrival of a synthetic substitute) is ultimately contradictory in identity, associated with relaxed individualism it is nonetheless produced in enormous quantities for the mass market each year. A prison uniform shirt is displayed near an artists’ smock (how could two identities be more different?) while nearby reference is made to Chairman Mao’s edict that China’s workers dress in indigo’s distinctive tones of blue. The use of indigo to dye workers clothing continues today in the phrase “blue collar worker”. But in parts of North Africa, the residue from indigo on the skin was a sign of wealth, rather than manual labour.

While the exhibition is packed with intriguing contrasts such as these, the exhibition title is, perhaps, a little too clever for its own good. I assumed (incorrectly) that the word pun alluded to a particularly violent history. While the eight main sections of the exhibition were introduced with concise and accessible text, the small explanatory cards displayed near the objects were at times difficult to find or match to the correct work. But these are minor quibbles.

It was William Morris who famously observed: “of all blues there is only one real dye, indigo.” This exhibition reveals that long before Morris, an enormous variety of cultures knew this. It is also reveals that after Morris, a small number have thankfully continued. Commissioned for the exhibition and displayed on the mezzanine Sculpture Court is a beautiful series of banners and dip dyed balls of yarn by the Japanese artist Hiroyuki Shindo. Heartening to see that in small ways, indigo is not yet a thing of the past.

A catalogue accompanies the show and Jenny Balfour-Paul’s Indigo has been reprinted by Archetype Publications to coincide with the exhibition.

Modern Carpets & Textiles (spring 2007: 19)