Benin Blues

Ancient techniques color the modern world

Feeding both body and soul has challenged our species, probably since its inception.  Thankfully, we have frequently discovered ways of doing both. In Benin, and in a few neighboring West African countries, artisans are keeping an ancient and earthy kind of soulful nourishment alive: natural indigo. I was invited in August 2008 to visit traditional artisans and observe the collaboration between them and their Parisian creative partners, members of the Heartwear collective (see article on p. 30).
 
The Indigofera family of plants, all leafy and gorgeously green, includes more than a hundred species from which indigo is derived – something mankind seems to have discovered around 3000 BCE, probably in India. Archeological evidence found at Bandiagara, Mali, indicates that indigo arrived in West Africa by at least the eleventh-century.
 
The color indigo is said to help us rise above fear and frustration, and is the color of faith and fairness

The transformative, almost magical, aspect of indigo dyeing may have been the reason for its special use in rituals, and its rich symbolic attributes. For the Chinese, indigo garments were a symbol of wealth and protection. In the Maya culture, sacrifices for the Goddess of Fertility were dyed in indigo. In Africa, wearing the color indigo gave you protection against the sun – and other dangerous influences at large in the world. Within contemporary color therapy, the energy frequency of the color indigo is said to help us rise above fear and frustration, and is the color of faith and fairness. Think true blue – something constant and beyond fickle knowledge. 
 
In the summer of 2008 I joined Parisian textile designer and Heartwear member Karen Petrossian, on a working trip to Benin. Heartwear devotes itself to sustaining traditional handcrafts by collaborating with artisans to gently amend their products for export -- without compromising the skill, know how, culture and environment of the region involved.  Since one of Benin’s main agricultural products is cotton, most of Heartwear’s products start from cotton fabrics – in addition to some imported yard goods in cotton and linen. 
 
We visited a group of women just south of the old royal city of Abomey who specialize in the knots essential to tie-dye designs. Pieces of raw cotton fabric are brought to the village by Heartwear’s longtime go-to-guy in Benin, Nicolas. He discusses the work to be done – and then the woman-to-woman village network takes over.  The knot-making happens at home, in between the women’s many responsibilities: childcare, food preparation, laundry, water-carrying, vegetable gardening, et cetera. The flexible schedule of the work is important in this rural setting.  We watched a demonstration of their skills, and their hands are faster than you can imagine. Within no time dozens of knots form a pattern on the plain cotton fabric – all precisely placed and of uniform size. We left, escorted back to the road by children, taking a stack of knotted fabrics with us to Cotonou for dyeing.
 
In Benin it is believed that only post-menopausal women can conduct the dyeing process. In earlier times indigo dyeing was surrounded by even stronger myths: If the dyeing was to be successful, the women needed not only to be beyond menstruation, they also needed to be free from sin, including lying, and cheating on their husbands. Interestingly, Benin’s animist voudou traditions also involve post-menopausal celebrants.
 
Regardless of the mythic and symbolic nature of the restrictions, the social habit of reserving indigo dyeing for mature women means that there is an economic opportunity reserved for women after their child-rearing years have passed.  The women themselves suggest with a laugh that it is the smell of the process that encouraged their men to relegate indigo-dyeing to the women’s world: ancient recipes used urine as an essential solvent.  Manufactured urea is used nowadays, allowing the more delicate scent of the indigo itself to emerge instead.
 
Starting in the late 19th-century, synthetic dyes and processes began replacing natural ones, so that by the 1990’s the old traditions were almost entirely extinct. Heartware has been a key player in reviving interest in indigo – in part due to their aesthetic inventiveness, but also because they have shown that this cultural treasure represents economic opportunity. Many years of steady Heartwear sales , as well as interest from tourists and others in a return to natural dyes and old methods, have resulted in an important reason traditions survive: viable artisan livelihoods.
 
Which brings us back to the beginning of this text:  physical and spiritual sustenance.  When indigo’s symbolic attributes of faith, fearlessness and fairness combine with beauty and success, we are presented with a formidable “must have” combination.
 
Birgitta De Vos is a clothing designer, a graphic designer, a photographer, and formerly an instructor at the Design Academy of Eindhoven. She has traveled extensively as a research consultant specializing in the economic and aesthetic viability of crafts in developing countries. Visit her at www.birgittadevos.nl
 

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