BY Rebeca Schiller | November 17, 2011
In search of the color that seduced the world
Indigo: it’s mysterious and alluring; it symbolizes life and death. World cultures have worshipped the deep blue pigment that comes from the leaves of the indigofera tinctoria. For thousands of years, it has held powerful and influential roles in trade, fashion and religion.
Indigo is the story of writer Catherine McKinley’s search for the dye’s mystique and history, but also her own personal story. Descended from generations of Russian Jewish schmatta (rag) traders, McKinley’s maternal grandmother owned a textile factory in Massachusetts, and her paternal grandfather was the son of African slaves. Mesmerized early on with everything blue, McKinley, with the funding of a Fulbright grant, traveled to Africa in search of the mystical and hypnotic blue cloth and dye that was traded on the same routes as her African ancestors.
Settling in Accra, Ghana (traveling to Nigeria at the time was out of the question because of political turmoil) McKinley is soon befriended by Eurama, a shopkeeper, who introduces her to the various intricately designed textiles found in the local marketplace, but in spite of all the rich fabric samples and designs, indigo proves to be elusive.
Her obsession never wanes and finding fabric that is dyed with the actual leaves of the shrub isn’t fulfilled until one day, while running errands, she meets a Taureg man wearing an indigo dyed taglemust. When she innocently, asks where she can buy a similar piece of fabric, he unravels the dirty and sweaty cloth from his head. But this newly acquired treasure comes comes with a princely price tag that’s equivalent to a Ghanian worker's monthly earnings.
McKinley writes of her various encounters in search of the difficult to find indigo, In her various travels throughout West Africa, she provides readers with the history of Europeans—in particular the Dutch—within the region as well as an introduction to the Vlisco Empire—the Dutch company that manufactures Batik designs. The most colorful of these historical accounts, however, center on the Kingdom of Dahomey what is now the Republic of Benin, and the dire political tensions she witnessed in the Ivory Coast. But apart from her search for the richly-dyed blue fabric, McKinley also learned a few lessons about herself and about life. As she questioned her manic need to collect indigo, to learn more about her heritage and the folklore of the dye, she finally comes to understands Eurama’s wise words that have been repeated over and over: “These things are life.”
Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World will suit many readers, with its equal parts of memoir, history, travelogue, and of course, indigo. McKinley paints a vivid tableau of Africa in a burst of colors other than the multiple shades of inky blue.
Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World, by Katherine McKinley. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Indigo is available via Amazon.com and other booksellers.