For my 21st birthday, I treated myself to a piece of indigo dyed fabric. It has been washed too many times to count and the dye, although still strong has acquired the beautiful variegated patina of age. Years later I discovered it was a Nigerian Yorùbá indigo dyed textile using a starch resist technique called àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko. This fabric provides the initial inspiration for my indigo research and my desire to explore my personal connection with Jamaica’s indigo plantations and Yorùbá indigo textiles.
This part of my research has been made possible through a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship under the Crafts and Makers category. The award has been made in partnership with the Heritage Crafts Association, the advocacy body for traditional crafts. The fellowship has enabled me to travel to South Western Nigeria to research Yorùbá àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko pattern making.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is the UK’s national memorial to Winston Churchill. Each year the Trust awards Travelling Fellowship grants to UK citizens in a range of fields to enable Churchill Fellows to carry out research projects overseas. These projects are designed to exchange ideas and best practice, and build greater understanding between peoples and different cultures.
My travels start in Lagos and from there I head to Abeokuta, Ibadan, Osogbo, Ogbomosho and Olusun-Ota. I’m meeting indigo dyers, artisans and academics along the route. Please follow my Nigerian travels and keep a look out for talks and workshops when I return to the UK.
Indigo dyed Corchorus olitorius (Tossa jute) with openwork hand embroidery Lucille Junkere 2015
I have been studying and dyeing with indigo dye for over six years and through that connection became aware of one of the first women to be inducted into the South Carolina business hall of fame. When Eliza Lucas Pinckney moved to South Carolina during the eighteenth century she owned a number of African slaves and used their labour and knowledge of indigo cultivation to help indigo become one of South Carolina’s most lucrative cash crops. Her historic contribution to their agricultural economy was acknowledged in the hall of fame. The fact that she was a slave owner using forced unpaid labour to successfully grow and extract indigo for export is not properly acknowledged in South Carolina.
Her Wikipedia entry reads like a shameless celebration of her life. When I first read it last year there were no references to slavery at all so I corrected that. It took me a while because I used academic research to support my references to slavery and her use of the African expertise of indigo cultivation. I took a screen shot of my contribution but within two days someone removed all the references to slavery. So I put them back, they were removed again, this back and forth went on a while it was as if people were trying to erase history. I continued to change the entry and told a few friends and textile artists who helped monitor the removal of the slavery references, reinstating my additions. Finally some of my references have stayed, albeit edited down to perhaps a sentence, but I am satisfied that some of the truth is documented. When people research indigo I want them to know the truth about this magnificent plant colour.
This is a bit part of the problem in America’s southern states, where is the proper acknowledgement, the recognition of the terrible history and legacy of South Carolina’s past and the origins of its wealth? How can people heal if the uncomfortable truths are not addressed? One of nine people killed in Charleston, South Carolina was an African American paster Reverend Clementa Pinckney. When I saw his last name, I wondered whether his relatives were African slaves who grew indigo for Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
My sample book of indigo textiles is now on display at the gallery. I am still experimenting and improvements in the weather have enabled me to achieve much darker blues, more even coverage and explore different indigo recipes. I will post some photos very soon as I am also working on the printed version of all the samples which will go on display at the gallery in the next few weeks.
Hope you can join me this weekend I am hosting a lovely film, Indigo Textiles amongst the Yoruba, the director Thorolf Lipp has kindly given me permission to show the film to a public audience for free. There will also be some vintage Nigerian textiles on display. Duncan Clarke from Vintage African Textiles has been very generous in lending them to me for the film screening and post film discussion. His textiles are beautiful examples of the Nigerian Yoruba technique, Adire Eleko, where cassava paste is used to create patterns and resist indigo dye. You can read about these textiles and see some photos on Duncan’s website and you can find him in Alfie’s Antiques Market, London NW8 http://www.adireafricantextiles.com
Like most people I’ve been unwell with one thing or another brought on by the cold, damp weather. However my mood has lifted with some fabulous news, TRAID, one of my favourite textile recycling charities will be sponsoring some of the fabrics for my residency. I’ve been a fan and a customer of TRAID for years. I love their funky, fun approach to bringing new life to old fabrics as they say in the UK, ‘Make do and Mend’ or in Jamaica ‘ Tun u hand mek Fashion’.
TRAID is a charity working to stop clothes from being thrown away. They turn clothes waste into funds and resources to reduce the environmental and social impacts of our clothing choices. I appreciate their approach because it is practical, circular and sustainable. They address the problem of clothes waste by tackling disposal, production and consumption. They do this by increasing clothes reuse across the UK reducing waste, carbon emissions and raising awareness amongst consumers.
They also fund international development projects to improve conditions and working practices in the textile industry. What I like about their approach is that it is bottom up rather than top down, working in true partnership to support suppliers who have identified ways they want to improve their input and lives within the textile supply chain. http://www.traid.org.uk/projects/organic-cotton-a-route-out-of-poverty/
Clothes are given to TRAID as cast offs and waste which they transform into high quality stock for their charity shops. They hand sort donations at their London warehouse, selecting stock for their shops based on condition, quality and style. It’s a major process which sees their lovely team sorting, hanging, tagging, pricing and merchandising around 11,000 garments per week to reuse and resell.
Their sponsorship of some of the fabrics for my residency involves the textiles which don’t meet the standards to be sold in their shops. These might be old duvet covers or curtains with holes or stains. However as long as the fibre is natural and the fabric has some life left in it I can do something with it. Watch this space to see how they’re transformed after they are given a makeover in indigo! For more information about this great charity http://www.traid.org.uk/
I’ve been so busy I kept forgetting to mention this lovely little free photographic exhibition I saw at Blackhorse Lane Studios, 114 Blackhorse Lane London E17 6AA
It’s an exhibition of photography and video work created by Charlotte Mortensson featuring downtown Kingston, Jamaica. The work focuses on the built environment because Charlotte is interested in what buildings say about people and because like me she doesn’t like to take pictures of people without their consent and these days people are reluctant to have their picture taken plus it turns the whole thing into a different kind of photograph.
Charlotte has managed to penetrate Jamaica on a deeper level than the traditional visitor. She has taken time to get to know the artist community and to visit places, sadly the tourist guides tell you to avoid. Her efforts have been rewarded and she has experienced the energy and beauty of the island. Charlotte is respectful and sensitive about people and culture and this shows in her work which captures the essence of the fading grander of some of the downtown buildings. Many are crumbling due to absentee owners who refuse to allow them to be occupied yet at the same time do nothing to prevent their deterioration.
There still time to see the exhibition it’s on over the weekend until 31 August 2014 (Saturday and Sunday from 12 – 6pm).
Today is Emancipation day so I thought I’d share this photograph I took in Ouidah, Benin on the West Coast of Africa. It’s the detail from ‘La Porte du Non Retour’ or The Door of No Return. The Republic of Benin, Ouidah and UNESCO built the monument in 1992 as a symbol to commemorate African ancestors lost through the transatlantic slave trade. It’s difficult to find the words to describe the emotions you feel when you visit this place. The air is thick with violence, memories, loss, betrayal, the sadness really is overwhelming. At the same time there is a sense of pride and strength which many, including myself believe is the spirit of those that were forced to leave.
My next stop was Cape Coast Castle, one of about 30 slave castles in Ghana, my brother admirably drove most of the way with malaria which he dealt with by placing a handkerchief on his head to soak up the sweat from the fever. I am pleased to say he no longer gets malaria.
About 1000 male slaves and 500 female slaves occupied Cape Coast Castle at any one time in separate dungeons. Each slave would be locked up for 6 to 12 weeks, waiting to board one of the ships. The design of the dungeons reveals the complete and brutal disregard for human life. There are a couple of windows but they only let in a small amount of light rather than fresh air, the ceilings are so low you have to stoop when you are inside and there is a channel down the middle for human waste. There were only a handful of people on my tour, the horror was visible on all our faces. I couldn’t stand that place, it had an unbearable smell. I cannot tell you how relieved I was when an African American man in the group started crying. He gave release to the emotions I felt too paralysed to surrender. I later discovered that he had traced his ancestry to Ghana and spends half his time there to support the enterprise project he set up with the local community.
There is a memorial plaque in the courtyard at the entrance to the castle. It says – In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this.