Indigo - A Blue To Dye For At The Whitworth Gallery Manchester

By Alice Kershaw | 23 January 2007
colour photo showing the silhouette of a man wearing a horned helmet standing against a green background

Shihoko Fukumoto installation 2003 (detail). Courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery

Alice Kershaw visits the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester for a fascinating exhibition that reveals the origins and art of indigo.

Indigo- A Blue to Dye For, showing at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester until April 15 2007 brings together a wide variety of indigo-dyed artefacts from artists and producers spanning the globe.

Curated by Dr Jennifer Harris, Curator of Textiles at the Whitworth, the varied fabric-based objects on display range from designs by William Morris to pieces by contemporary high fashion labels next to folk craft from Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Indigo is a plant extract that has been in use for at least 5,000 years and its long and chequered history is reflected within this exhibition. India is believed to be the first country to have used this dark blue dye, but it was also known to be in use in the ancient civilisations of Rome, where it was also used as a pigment in paint, as well as Britain, Greece, Iran, Africa, Peru and Mesopotamia.

Most famous nowadays for its use as the primary dye for denim jeans, it was formerly believed to have talismanic properties by many cultures.

Split into two sections, the larger downstairs space at the Whitworth shows the production process and varied fabrics used by different cultures. Upstairs the ‘Blue Art’ section features several pieces of European and Japanese art specially commissioned for the touring exhibition.

an Indian shawl made of indigo cloth with embroidered patterns and inlaid mirrors

An Indian shawl dating to the late 19th century. Courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery

However, it is the rolls of fabric and hangings that one first encounters on entering the exhibition that show the diverse decorative techniques used in the fabric dying process, including batik, stencils, embroidery and tie dye.

One of the more striking pieces in this section is an Indian Gujiarat shawl from the early 19th century. The large piece is delicately embroidered with intricate patterns of primary coloured thread and small mirrors that draw the eye. There is also a William Morris block-printed piece that illustrates his love for the colour.

Alongside such beauty, the exhibition reveals how the indigo trade also has a darker side dating back to the days of empire when textile workers were treated like slaves. Conditions eventually led to the revolt of 1886 in Bengal known as ‘The Blue Mutiny’ and this part of the indigo story is illustrated with a model of an indigo factory and some illustrations of conditions the workers were subject to.

There is also a video of indigo production as it is carried out in the world today alongside an explanation of the chemical process of dying, by which indigo develops its colour after removal from the dye pot, going through yellow before reaching its final colour.

This colour change was one of the reasons it was so revered by, amongst others, the native people of Chile. A chief’s poncho from the Mapuche people was considered to be sacred because indigo was believed to be ‘the colour of infinity’ which ‘mediated between the living and the dead’.

a photograph of a chair in a gallery placed before a large batik style print

Shihoko Fukumoto, installation, 2003. Courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery

A strong contemporary strand to the later sections of the exhibition show the development of indigo as a dye for the nobility in China through to its use as an everyday dye for work wear and the development of designer denim.

To illustrate this there is a collection of jeans from contemporary designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen alongside more mainstream brands such as Gap, Rock and Republic and Howies. The latter brand features the rather tastelessly named ‘plantation jeans’ hinting at the aforementioned dark period in the history of indigo.

Alongside hangs the work of Fiona Candy, whose 2004 work ‘Personal Uniform’, a digital print on white cotton, examines the paradox of trying to create a personal identity from mass-produced clothing.

Upstairs the setting of the bare brick and white walls of the gallery space provides a minimalist background to the visually arresting art. Hiroyuku Shindo’s hangings and string balls provide a striking medley of textures to examine, all in the prerequisite shades of blue. Behind this is Shihoko Fukumoto’s 2003 installation piece of a large banner with a chair in front of it upon a carpet - all executed in the Japanese technique of indigo shibori.

The exhibition sheds new light on a very old substance and showcases some truly stunning pieces alongside an educational look at the dye itself and its history. Indigo is a universal colour with many meanings and this exhibition examines in depth older ideas about magic and alchemy along with more recent uses in the fashion industry.

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