The exhibition takes a look at the history and art behind one of nature’s most elusive colors

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Japanese bedspread, ca. 1900s hand-spun and woven cotton, sumi and indigo ink and other dyes 65 × 65 inches, Museum of International Folk Art. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

The deep midnight blue of indigo splashes and weaves its way across the world and through history.

Artists from Asia, Africa and the Americas have used indigo in various forms and techniques for at least 6,200 years, said Josie Lopez, art curator at the Albuquerque Museum.

One of the seven colors of the rainbow, blue remains one of the rarest natural colors. Indigo is one of the few organic sources of blue dye.

Opened at the Albuquerque Museum, “Indelible Blue: Indigo Across the Globe” explores the history of this elusive plant from the Navajo nation to South Carolina to Japan.

The famous Indigo blue is inspired by a turbulent history supported by trade, colonialism, slavery, globalism and cultural exchange.

“It’s been in the state since colonial times,” said Leslie Kim, curator of history at the Albuquerque Museum. “The brother’s dresses were dyed with it. The Camino Real is born from both dye and fabric.

Hanoolchaadi (First phase chef’s cover) Diné ca. 1860, spun and dyed wool. (Courtesy of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology)

The labor-intensive process of cultivating and extracting indigo plants, combined with their value, led colonial powers to establish indigo plantations in the South East, the Caribbean, the Latin America and India. India’s legacy of slavery and Indigo Revolt in 1859 reflects 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 the benefit of the British.

A Japanese farmer’s coat and Indian sarees reveal its use in utilitarian clothing. The exhibit includes a rare first-phase Navajo chieftain blanket and similar garment from Ivory Coast as prestige markers.

Some contemporary artists use dyeing in political installations. Slaves practiced the cultivation and processing of indigo from the 17th to the 19th century for European profit. The works of Laura Anderson Barbata and artist Taos Nikesha Breeze reflect this dark history.

“Red, White, Black and Blue: An Homage to African American Indigo” by Nikesha Breeze, ceramic, raw indigo, red iron, cotton and denim.

Breeze created sculptures titled “Red, White, Black and Blue: A Tribute to African American Indigo,” made of ceramic, raw indigo, red iron, cotton and denim. The installation pays homage to the slaves who played a pivotal role in the indigo trade, particularly in North and South Carolina.

Breeze stumbled upon the sad history of the American indigo plantations as she searched for her ancestral roots. She created two altarpieces in tribute to the slaves who worked there.

“The American blue jeans had its history in what was called ‘black fabric’,” she explained. “They weren’t just wearing the fabric; they did it for themselves. Most of them only received one pair of pants per year. It was like a uniform.

Nikesha Breeze installs her sculpture “Red, White, Black and Blue: An Homage to African American Indigo” at the Albuquerque Museum.

Levi Strauss spotted the pants and turned it into a business.

“He added rivets and created a story of American ingenuity that was literally taken from the backs of slaves.”

Breeze altars start with indigo cakes and raw cotton, then climb into the negro fabric that grows in Levi Strauss jeans.

“At the top are sculpted ceramic hands and feet with dark black skin tinted blue,” she said.

It was only after the discovery of synthetic dyes around 1880 that the botanical indigo trade collapsed.

Many artists in the exhibition such as Rowland Ricketts, Scott Sutton, Mariá Dávila and Eudorado Portillo process their own indigo.

“To Plait”, James Bassler, 2015, wedge weave construction; silk, linen, ramie, sisal, pineapple, nettle weft; indigo dyed silk and linen warp, 47-1 / 4 × 44-1 / 4 inches. (Courtesy of browngrotta arts)

Artist Taos Sutton created a hanging indigo map of the Rio Grande watershed.

“These are environmental / ecological based things,” 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 the seeds and let some of it grow to flower,” he said. “The pigment is in the leaves.”

He removes the leaves from the stems, then places them in a 35 gallon trash can with water.

“You make like tea in the sun,” he explained. After about three days, he aerates the dye by blowing in the water with an irrigation tube. Pigment particles settle to the bottom.

“Rolling Calf”, Laura Anderson Barbata, 2015, hand-woven indigo-dyed cotton textile by Habibou Coulibaly, courtesy of L’Aviva Home, indigo-dyed cotton brocade, printed cotton, machine embroidery from Oaxaca, decorated sneakers, basket in natural fibers, buttons, maché fabric, leather, Intervention character: Indigo. (Courtesy of René Cervantes)

Sutton borrowed his seeds from Indiana artist Rowland Ricketts. His Albuquerque project consists of several shades of blue. He based the model on height maps from the US Geological Survey.

Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent policy arose from watching Indian farmers cultivate indigo, Kim said.

“Gandhi went to visit the farmers to understand the working systems related to British colonization,” she said.

“Indigo was a very important crop for England,” she continued. “They banned them from planting crops and forced them to grow indigo. It’s a difficult story.

Indigo weaves its magic through cultures and history.

“It’s that deep blue that becomes a symbol of prestige,” Lopez said. “There is no blue without indigo.”


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