Beadwork Adorns the World Volume 41.1

Clockwise left: LAKOTA “CREATION NARRATIVE” SHIRT by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of wool cloth, antique glass beads, 2016. Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unattributed. OBA’S “BARRISTER’S WIG” CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, 21.0 x 17.0 x 15.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Sara and David Lieberman Collection. Photograph by Craig Smith. BABY CARRIER PANEL, Kenyah peoples, Orang Ulu group, Borneo island, Indonesia/Malaysia, of cotton, glass beads, pineapple leaf fiber, 31.0 x 33.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. WEDDING MOCCASINS FOR BRIDE’S IN-LAWS, Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, of tanned hide, glass beads, 26.7 centimeters, circa 1930. MUKYEEM MASK, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, of hide, wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, plant fiber, 39.5 x 44.9 x 54.0 centimeters, pre-1935. Courtesy of the Field Museum. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Clockwise right:
LEOPARD HELMUT MASK, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of raffia, indigo-dyed cotton and trade cotton, glass beads, 53.0 x 79.0 centimeters, circa 1900. HORSE NECK COVER (ghughi), Kathi peoples, Saurashtra region, Gujarat state, India, of cotton, silk, glass beads, mirror, metal, 128.3 x 162.6 centimeters, circa 1930. David McLanahan Collection. OBA’S BRITISH CROWN-STYLE CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. GROOM’S WEDDING BAG, Banjara peoples, Wadi, Gulbarga, Karnataka state, India, of cotton, cowrie shells, metal, 49.0 x 30.5 centimeters, circa 1986. CHINA POBLANA BLOUSE, Puebla, Mexico, of cotton, glass beads, 62.3 x 53.5 centimeters, circa 1935. COLLAR, Saraguro peoples, Ecuador, of glass beads, nylon thread, 11.7 x 37.0 centimeters, 1963. BRIDE’S APRON (ijogolo), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of goatskin, glass beads, 60.5 x 42.0 centimeters, circa 1970. All photographs courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art and by Blair Clark, except where noted.

European glass beads, as author and curator Marsha C. Bol explains, are “the ultimate migrants.” In her exhibit “Beadwork Adorns the World,” which recently closed at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and her accompanying book, The Art & Tradition of Beadwork, she explored how, in the nineteenth century, these trade goods not only went to the far ends of the earth, but also were transformed into an astounding array of cultural and social artifacts. In the West, beadwork became mostly decorative, more so these days in couture and formal wear. But elsewhere, beadwork endowed clothing and objects with formidable power and rich, metaphysical meanings. It became the most profound expression of ritual, of majesty, of identity, and of the spirit world.

Dr. Bol generously agreed to sit down and talk about the years-long process leading to the exhibit. The extended search for superb examples consumed many air miles and many conversations with artists, since so much knowledge has only been passed down orally, from mother to daughter or from an elder to an archaeologist or historian. Intended to dazzle and impress, the beadwork in the exhibit did all that and more.

WEDDING OUTFIT (ulu rajang), Iban peoples, Sarawak state, Borneo island, Malaysia. HEADDRESS of wood, paper, glass beads, cotton, sequins, 38.1 x 61.0 centimeters. DRESS of stone, glass and shell beads, 77.5 centimeters long, twentieth century. David McLanahan Collection.

Q.  What was your inspiration for “Beadwork Adorns the World?”

Actually, it was a book project first. Back in 2011, a tall, stately, white-haired man named Gibbs Smith walked into my office. He was a magnificent man. He wanted to do this; he thought that Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, had been out for quite a long time and he wanted to publish something new; not about beads, but beadwork around the world. He came to me partly because of my background—I did a Ph.D. in Native American art history with a dissertation on Lakota [western Sioux] women’s and men’s arts, and I continue to do fieldwork. And he knew, because of this museum’s holdings, that it was the right place for the project. I was the museum’s director, so it was going to take a while to get it done. Bless his heart; he died about the time the book went to press.




Q.  What types of beadwork were shown in the exhibit?

The whole exhibit included two hundred sixty beaded objects. I used a very broad definition of beads: metal, shell, ceramic—all different kinds of beads, from fifty-two countries and one hundred four known cultural traditions. There were many examples of women and men’s clothing, several crowns, jewelry, and masks. There was also a beaded pillow, boxes, a royal stool, voodoo flags, bowls, and quite a few amulets. The pieces ranged from the nineteenth century to the present day, so it was not just about the past. When you first walked in there was a “Grab Me” piece. Exhibit designers emphasize the importance of that, to pique curiosity and interest. An extraordinary piece, it’s a wedding dress from the Iban people, who live in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Fully beaded, it weighs about thirty-eight pounds, with very large carnelian beads.


HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940.  Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940. Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

Q.  Were there any surprises for you, while you were organizing the exhibit?

I always approach a project like this with two prongs. One is obviously that you need to work with the collections that you already have. But the other prong is to think about the themes and the content. The museum has an impressive collection, and I went through every drawer and every cabinet looking for beadwork. I ran through four part-time assistants during the project. The museum’s photographer, Blair Clark, and I would spend every Friday morning shooting pictures; we ended up taking about one thousand photographs.

As I was looking at objects, I started to realize that they fell into interesting groups of themes, beginning with life passages. It made me aware of something that I’m not sure that I had consciously understood, which is that beadwork is used for these peak moments in the lives of people in almost every culture. So if you start with childhood, from the cradle, then move on to puberty and adolescence, marriage and death, every beadworking society that I know of does it for an occasion, or to identify and set apart a king, a spiritual authority or someone of high status and position.

Then I got to thinking: beadwork is not a structure, like ceramics or textiles; it’s an adornment, an embellishment. It’s not something that can be used solely on its own—it’s almost always married with something else. That also pushed me towards thinking about how the embellishment, which did not stand alone, added to the effectiveness of the piece—maybe gave it more potency. The exhibit was arranged to follow those themes, which were developed in the book.

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BABY BONNET, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, 9.1 x 2.7 x 4.6 centimeters, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc. CHILD’S HAT, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, of cotton, silk, glass beads, buttons, metal, embroidered applied trim, 58.0 x 12.0 centimeters, circa 1950. BOY’S HAT, Bai peoples, Dali county, Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China, of silk, cotton, metal beads and objects, feathers, yarn, embroidered appliquéd applied trim, diameter: 14.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Photographs by Addison Doty.

Q.  What was the toughest part of the show to pull together?

Trying to be international! We were missing some areas and I couldn’t travel everywhere, which was frustrating. When I did get away for work, I searched for beadwork. I went to Uzbekistan, southwest China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to look at the African collection, which is absolutely mind-boggling. I found a wonderful private collection of Lakota beadwork that is in two homes, here and in San Diego.

What is also special to me about the exhibit and the book is giving more recognition to the beadwork of Borneo. The examples we included came from a private collection in Seattle. Pieces like those are considered treasures in Borneo. Before glass beads came in through the trade network, they were getting carnelian beads from Java. Their designs are very recognizable, especially for the Orang Ulu people. Among indigenous people in Borneo there’s a hierarchy; certain designs belonged to the aristocracy and certain ones to the middle class. The beadwork on baby cradles serves a double function, to reveal social position and for protection. Babies’ souls like to wander, so the beaded panels distract evil spirits and keep them away from harming the baby.

BOY’S VEST AND PANTS, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc.

Q.  No matter where you looked, Venetian and Czech glass beads seem to have gone all around the world. How did they become so widespread?

First it was the Venetian, and then the Czech glass beads. Beads were always expensive; they had a lot of value as prestige items. In fact in some places in Africa, like among the Zulu, the king controlled the rights to the bead trade; only the king and members of his court were allowed to wear beadwork on their headdresses and clothing. There are three desirable things about glass beads. First of all, they are quite durable, and last a long time even though they are glass; secondly, they have a luster and shine that is very attractive; and thirdly they come in many different colors, which is also extremely appealing.

On the Plains, seed beads arrived around 1850. You cannot say that, among the Lakota, there was nothing before then, because there was dyed quillwork, and many of the old geometric designs carried over into beadwork. Later on, during the reservation period for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes, there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to abandon traditional ways, including traditional clothing. There was a big florescence of beadwork then on the reservations, part of which I believe had to do with trying to preserve the identity of the children. That’s why you saw a little boy’s vest and pants, which are very Western in style, yet they are totally Lakota because they are not made out of cloth; they are made out of hide completely covered in beadwork. This kind of outfit would be more acceptable to the Indian agent and government people, yet it let everyone in the family feel a strong sense of their culture.






Q.  So wherever you go in the world, beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

There’s a fascinating example of that, which is well-recorded, from Zulu beadwork in South Africa. Zulu beadwork does the talking for the women when it’s involved in courtship. Young women would make beadwork bracelets, cuffs, ankle bands, or necklaces as gifts for the young man they had their eye on.

We call them “love letters,” though they were not quite that. The necklaces in the exhibit dated from the late nineteenth century and were loaned from the Field Museum. Scholars disagree about this, but from the colors and designs, proverbs could be discerned. It was not like a personal message, but let a young man know her intentions. A young Zulu man could pile on beadwork from many girls, all at the same time; a piece didn’t obligate him. And of course the more he wore, the more status he had.

One of the most exciting things about doing this project was that every piece has a story to tell, because they are all deeply imbedded in the cultures that make and use them. I tried to share those stories in the label texts, though of course you’re limited in the amount of space you have. But one day I was at the museum after the show had opened and I overhead a man—a man, no less—come out of the show and say to his friends, “That show! There’s a story about every piece!” He was very excited, and I was doubly thrilled because it was a man—often we think of beadwork as women’s work—and because he understood there was a story with everything.

“LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. “LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0-19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. Photographs by John Weinstein.

Q.  Let’s talk about Western attitudes towards beadwork as “women’s work.” There was a thought-provoking section of the exhibit and the book called “Gender in Beadwork.”

We underestimate beadwork’s importance in other cultures. The idea in the exhibit was to honor and acknowledge women’s artistry and creativity in beadwork. In traditional societies, there has always been a division of labor by gender. Women worked with materials for the home, like making pottery or baskets. The fineness and beauty of what women produced brought them respect and rank: it gave them status. Even in our culture doing beadwork was a practical skill; it demonstrated a woman’s housekeeping capabilities, how she could produce useful things. Certainly in fashion today beadwork is prized.


Q.  Some beadwork from Africa radiates drama and power and grandeur. There were examples from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Bamileke in Cameroon and the Kuba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why is that beadwork so imposing?

Those are magnificent pieces, all intended for the king. Again, the right to wear trade beads belonged exclusively to royalty. It’s very powerful, gorgeous stuff. Only a professional male beadworker can make the king’s regalia, and he actually does it at court. In hierarchical societies, the kings usually have both political and spiritual leadership. The star of that section was the great Yoruba crown. It reinforces the king’s divinity, separating him from other people; when he wears that crown, he embodies the oba, who can communicate with ancestral spirits. The long beaded veil covers his face, and he holds an elaborately beaded flywhisk to hide his mouth as he’s speaking. His feet can’t touch the ground, so they rest on beaded cushions. The faces on the crown represent the first oba, Oduduwa. When someone consults the oba, he is not asking about his future. In their belief system, you know everything that is going to happen before you emerge into this life. As you are born, you touch the tree of forgetfulness. You are asking the oba to remind you of what you used to know.

The king only wears that crown for major ceremonial occasions. He has day-to-day crowns, which resemble the British crown; Nigeria was a British colony during the nineteenth century. There are even beaded British-style wigs for court. That’s a good example of how traditional beadwork merged into modern society.

OBA ADEMUWAGUN ADESIDA II, in the courtyard of his palace, Akure, Nigeria, 1959. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art. OBA’S GREAT CROWN (adenla), Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of palm ribs armature (pako), cornstarch (eko), cotton, glass beads, thread, 114.0 x 22.9 centimeters, 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Dawson Gallery.


Q.  The world is changing so fast. Does beadwork still have a cultural role to play?

Beadwork is still essential to reaffirm identity. For instance, after the Boer War in South Africa, the Ndzundza Ndebele people were indentured out to farms all over the country, scattered far from their homeland and each other. Ndzundza Ndebele women, even under those circumstances, began again to hold puberty ceremonies for boys and girls in these faraway places, which involved beaded aprons. Ndebele women are identified by their age-stage beaded aprons: for little girls, as unmarried adolescents, and as married women, when the apron has five distinct lobes. They held onto making and wearing these beaded aprons and are known for them today.

It’s always evolving. Nellie Star Boy Menard from Rosebud on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and I were judging at an arts fair in Bismarck, North Dakota. She saw a piece of beadwork and said, “Oh, that’s not Sioux enough.” I have talked to Florentine Blue Thunder and Tom Haukaas, who make their own pow-wow outfits, and they keep to the more historic traditions, but they complain that the judges now don’t know how to tell the old styles and designs. The pow-wow and social-dance competitions help beadwork to continue. If you don’t have a market for your arts, whether internal, among tribal members, or external, among outsiders, they are not going to survive.

ZULU RICKSHAW PULLERS ON THE BEACHFRONT, Durban, South Africa, early 1980s. Photograph by Jean Morris.


Q.  How can these older cultures stay resilient and sustain their beadwork traditions?

One way is through re-invention. In South Africa, Zulu rickshaw pullers became celebrated for their outfits. In the 1890s, somebody from Durban went to Singapore and brought back rickshaws (this is before there were cars). Only Zulu men were allowed to pull them, but then someone said they needed to wear a uniform so the police could identify who they were.

The Zulu men themselves created these wild, wonderful, imaginative costumes with the enormous, amazing headdresses. The oxen horns associated the strength of the ox with the man. They were a tourist attraction, and the men would stage their own competitions for who had the best costume. In the past they were famous warriors, so it became a source of real pride for the Zulu men.

Another way is through the marketplace. A purposeful part of the exhibit was to let visitors know that beadwork is still very much a living tradition. Within various sections I included profiles of contemporary artists, or of women’s co-ops who are working today. An example was the netted-beadwork necklaces made by indigenous Saraguro women in Ecuador. They’ve joined together five local associations into one big co-op, for marketing purposes and for buying materials. They can still make part of their traditional ethnic dress and bring in income to support their families. Oftentimes they are the main breadwinners in their communities.

CHILD’S BLOUSE PANEL, northern Afghanistan, of cotton, glass beads, 38.0 x 32.7 centimeters, twentieth century. Anne and Bill Frej Collection.

I should mention here that the International Folk Art Market was a great help to me, because a lot of beadwork artists come to the market and I was able to connect with them. The world is getting smaller all the time, and more beadwork traditions are crossing into global awareness. Artists are finding ways to adapt their beadwork and introduce innovations yet keep it meaningful. As I discuss in the book, beadwork has even moved into contemporary art. At the opening, Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves told me she was so grateful to be included in an international show, and not strictly a Native American show. That made it all worthwhile.


Q.  As you were considering pieces for the exhibit and writing your book, you developed criteria for quality and excellence. Did you wind up with any personal favorites?

There were so many pieces I loved for different reasons, but some were standouts for me, because of the amount of incredible beadwork on them, the skill of the artists and the aesthetics. I’m thinking of Tom “Red Owl” Haukaas’s beaded Lakota cradles; the nineteenth-century double-headed elephant stool covered in red tube beads used by the king in Cameroon; the wonderful Brulé Lakota violin case; and a Ndebele married woman’s wearing blanket.

VIOLIN CASE, Brulé Lakota, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, of commercial wood case, native-tanned hide, metal trim, glass beads, 81.3 x 25.4 x 11.4 centimeters, 1891. Courtesy of Stars and Stripes Foundation.

“Beadwork Adorns the World” showed April 22, 2018 - February 3, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Visit their website at internationalfolkart.org. The 16th Annual International Folk Art Market takes place July 12 - 14, 2019, Milner Plaza, on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit their website at folkartmarket.org.


SUGGESTED READING
Bol, Marsha C.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Dubin, Lois Sherr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Liu, Robert K.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, CA: Ornament Inc, 1995.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher.
“The Language of Personal Adornment.” In The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979.
Sumberg, Bobbie.
Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

 

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FON’S ROYAL STOOL, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of wood, raffia cloth, glass beads, 41.0 x 45.0 x 50.0 centimeters, nineteenth century. Photograph by John Weinstein. MITAKUYE OYASIN CRADLE by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of brain-tanned elk hide, cotton, glass beads, thread, 68.5 x 23.5 x 30.5 centimeters, 2005. Marilyn Eber Collection. MARRIED WOMAN’S BLANKET (irari), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of wool, glass beads, 269.2 x 381.2 centimeters, circa 1970.


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Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is endlessly fascinated by the variety, intricacy, technical prowess, and rich beauty of beadwork. “I kept going back to the recent exhibit ‘Beadwork Adorns the World’ just to feast my eyes and try to understand more,” she says. “Once you discover the complex meanings of beadwork in other cultures, you come away with a real sense of awe and wonder.” She has taken the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition to a more revealing level, with her Ornament interview with Marsha C. Bol, curator of the exhibit, as Bol discusses how throughout the world beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

International Folk Art Market Volume 40.4

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STENCILED INDIGO-DYED CLOTHING, SCARVES AND ACCESSORIES by Wen-Chun Tang (pictured) and Wan-Lee Chen, Taiwan. OAXACAN SILVER FILIGREE JEWELRY by Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez, Mexico.

For fifteen years the International Folk Art Market (IFAM) has perched on Museum Hill, part of historic Santa Fe, a seductive, enchanting city in the Southwest’s high desert of New Mexico. Ninety-eight countries have participated in the annual July festival since its genesis in 2004; and the 2018 festival brought together fifty-three countries, two of them, Azerbaijan and Greece, for the first time. Originating as a counterpoint to our fiercely competitive, economically global world of corporate dominance, technical, mechanized and digital masteries, IFAM has become another kind of powerful voice, one that celebrates, encourages and supports the handmade.

GULZAT CHYTYRBAEVA, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

      Numbering among those who are showing for the first time, Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, from Kyrgyzstan, brought her sophisticated skills in embroidery to the venue. Her beautifully and carefully constructed soft merino wool slippers are traditionally worn in the Kyrgyzi home. She and her team of artisans design and make them, and all parts are handworked from the initial shearing of the sheep to final sewing of the slipper and its embroidery in their brightly colored, visually arresting designs. Under an apricot tree as her classroom, a young Chytyrbaeva learned Kyrgyzi embroidery techniques from her grandmother, and says, “Through embroidery I can convey my dreams.”

In Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, just outside of Oaxaca City, Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez makes finely detailed handcrafted jewelry, specializing in the ornate filigree work introduced by the Spaniards centuries ago. Her parents, goldsmiths Arturo and Marta Salgado Téllez, have been important mentors in her and her sisters lives, teaching them the exacting techniques and methods of jewelrymaking, such as the traditional “hoop” design replicated throughout Oaxaca. Now established in her own workshop, Téllez hones and increasingly introduces her own signature embellishments. She has gained more and more visibility in the craft world. Along with her 2018 admission to the market, a first, and as a participant in the Competition for Young Artists, held in Oaxaca, she recently received an award for “The Hoop,” a gold-plated pendant and earrings accented with freshwater pearls, rubies and semiprecious stones.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

GYULA BORSOS, Hungary.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

      Hungarian potter Gyula Borsos says that he was first taught by a master potter in his hometown during a weekend course. Now himself a proficient master of a regional style dating back several hundred years, Borsos makes functional vases, pitchers and stemware for informal daily use. Initially liturgical or commemorative vessels for the Reformed Church of Hungary, based on the Protestant theology of Calvinism, the pottery has evolved from its original purpose and is valued not only for its association with Calvinism but for its own unique aesthetic. Borsos’s application of a locally sourced green glaze brightens the surfaces with a seemingly magical interior beauty. Continuing to honor the past, the life of the present and the promise of the future, Borsos says that, “Someday, I would like to teach pottery besides making it, so as to keep this beautiful and very rich traditional profession alive.”

One of six regions showing at IFAM is East Asia and the Pacific, with crafts from eight distinctive cultures—Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Their traditions draw on an infinite reservoir of thousands of years of making baskets, beadwork, ceramics, jewelry, and most of all, textiles. These participating countries cumulatively contribute to the overall mix and material texture that makes IFAM such a valuable and meaningful destination. Two artists from Taiwan, Wan-Lee Chen and Wen-Chun Tang, specialize in sublime indigo-dyed garments, casual and wearable. While anchored in the traditional forms and motifs of their history, they also voice a relaxed, confident contemporary aesthetic, one that recognizes the global community as a source of inspiration. In addition to operating her own indigo farm and workshop, Tang is an indigo master dyer and teacher at the National Taiwan Craft Research Institution and her partner Wan-Lee Chen, a professor and designer of costume, received her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

In its aspirations, the International Folk Art Market can be viewed through many lens, but one is the influential role the United States continues to play at home and abroad. There are many differences and divisions keenly felt, and the struggle is strong and visible each and every day, but the US still sends a strong message of hope and possibility—and the world looks and listens, taking note. As individuals, there is common ground to be found in cooperation and compromise; and we can live together in peace and civility, respecting our humanity. While the market honors the gifts of creation, bringing together artisans from all over the world, its true value is cultural—the world is a place for you and me to share and to exchange with each other, to grow and to learn. And for one weekend in July there are many such possibilities to be found on a certain hill in Santa Fe.

IFAM next celebrates the global art of the handmade July 12 - 14, 2019.
Visit their website at www.folkartmarket.org.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

Cochineal Volume 38.4

Cochineal
The Red That Colored the World

 

FIREFIGHTER’S CEREMONIAL COAT of wool with gold- and silk-thread, Japan, eighteenth-nineteenth century, Edo period. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor. All photographs provided by Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A first-class exhibition stirs up a sensation like jumping off into the unknown. “The Red That Colored the World,” originally at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art, did that and more, taking the novel approach of investigating the long-lost legend of a color. Called “an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade” by Camilla Padilla, exhibition co-curator with Dr. Barbara Anderson, it led one, like going through the Narnia closet, on a great adventure to seize upon marvels of red.

The essential marvel is cochineal: a tiny bug that lives and breeds on prickly pear cactus in the Americas. The female stores in her body enormous quantities of carminic acid, which produces a deep crimson-red dye. For close to two thousand years in Mesoamerica it was cultivated as an ideal colorant for protein fibers like silk and wool. Not until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s in Mexico did cochineal pass into recorded existence and become an invaluable dyestuff in global trade. As an archetype of a brilliant collaboration between nature and human ingenuity, cochineal was and still is applied to almost everything conceivable: textiles and clothing, books, murals, sculpture, furniture, oil paintings, as a varnish on violins, and in cosmetics, food and candy.

PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG WOMAN WITH A HARPSICHORD, artist unknown, Mexico, early eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of Denver Art Museum.

It took six years to locate and organize around one hundred and twenty-five magnificent examples of art with cochineal, loaned from museums and collections in London, New York, Denver, and Austin, and from Mexico, Peru, Spain, and Italy. The exceptional quality and craftsmanship of the selection celebrates how much red mattered. Whatever the culture or the epoch, red connoted rank and wealth and symbolized the sacred. It was hard to produce. The exhibition included samples of other natural sources of red dye—vermilion, cinnabar, lac, kermes, madder, even Polish and Armenian cochineal. They were expensive, toxic to extract, and not very stable. By comparison, cochineal was a dream, because of its super-saturation, its colorfastness and its ability, combined with mordants like lime or alum, to create an amazing spectrum of colors, from pink and salmon to apricot, magenta, scarlet, and a rich plum purple. A gilded beech armchair, upholstered in warm red wool dyed with cochineal, came from Napoleon’s council room at Malmaison. Cochineal was so coveted (and everyone was forking over such a fortune to the Spanish to buy it) that Napoleon offered a hefty “prize of 20,000 livres to the person who will find how to give wool by means of madder a solid vivid color… which most closely resembles cochineal scarlet.”

Maybe to stymie competitors, the Spanish claimed it was a grana, a little seed. Europeans never realized it was an insect until the invention of the microscope in the late seventeenth century. By the same token, everything in the exhibition was tested. Mark MacKenzie, head of the museum’s conservation department, did approximately twenty-five hundred analysis runs using primarily HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) technology to confirm wherever American cochineal was present. The point was not for viewers to figure out that a particular red comes from cochineal, like finding Waldo in a crowd, but to amplify our appreciation for its singular and inexplicable beauty. 

THE SAVIOR by El Greco, from the Apostles series, Toledo, Spain, circa 1608-1614. Photograph by Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España

Cochineal travelled everywhere. A sixteenth-century painting by El Greco of El Salvador in a red robe, and a Van Gogh picture from 1888 of a pair of worn boots both contain it. Spanish colonial artists lavished cochineal red, called carmine lake by pigment makers, on sumptuous rococo-inflected devotional art. Cochineal turns an eighteenth-century Japanese ceremonial firefighter’s coat bright red, and animates embroidered silk flowers with a vivacious wine red in an early nineteenth-century valance from Samarkand in Central Asia. From Mexico, the pièce de résistance is an eighteenth-century lacquerware papelera (writing chest) made in Michoacán and intricately painted with mythological figures, flowers and landscape views containing a soft berry red.

Once synthetic dyes came along in the late nineteenth century, red went into decline as a precious color. But since the 1970s, a revival of interest in natural dyes has steadily grown. Today Peru produces over eighty-five percent of the cochineal on the market, with the Canary Islands close behind. Fashion and textile artists especially favor cochineal. Two dresses from designer Mariano Fortuny were one of the crowning glories of the exhibition. Fortuny had a passion for color and experimented with cochineal to produce a palette of superb reds. To see an iconic pleated-silk Delphos gown up close is to realize just why he was called the Magician of Venice.

“The Red That Colored the World,” an integral part of Santa Fe’s 2015 Summer of Color, has now closed. Fortunately, there is still an opportunity to see this thematic presentation in another venue. It is showing at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, through March 21, 2016. 

PAPELERA, writing desk of pine, lacquer and iron, Mexico, eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of Museo Franz Mayer.

 
 

Leslie Clark is a freelanced writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Clark, who claims red is her favorite color, was flabbergasted by her visit to the “The Red That Colored the World” exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art up on Museum Hill. “I had no idea how exhaustively people worked, for centuries, to produce a red color. No wonder kings and prelates hogged it for themselves. Cochineal changed everything. Even now, with synthetic dyes around, its amazing properties are still the best. It makes you grateful to Mother Nature and those little bugs.”