art in unusual places - cochineal

As my travel 'wish list' continues to grow, I find myself becoming more and more infatuated with the idea of merging art and travel. 

More than simply visiting a country and its galleries and museums, I want to understand the true roots of a region's art-making, and for some reason natural dyes seemed like a good place to start.

As luck should have it the perfect jumping-off point fell into my lap a few weeks ago, when I watched an art documentary that mentioned cochineal. Admittedly I have absolutely zero knowledge of the making and uses of natural dyes, so it's safe to say that up until now I've taken them for granted.

Really, how often do we consider where the colour in our paints, dyes and make up comes from?

I guess if I had to really mine my brain for solutions I'd say that dye was made from a vague combination of plants, or that all dye nowadays was just made from soupy chemicals, but as it turns out, cochineal is made from huge quantities of parasitic insects, and is still widely used today.

'Cochineal' (aka Carmine, or the pigment shades 'Crimson' and 'Scarlet') is the name of the dye made from tiny parasite-like bugs that live on cacti, commonly produced in Central and South America. 

Once the bugs have cultivated a gross, crusty surface on the cacti, they're brushed off and then boiled, sun-dried and crushed to make a powdered dye. Oh, and it takes 70,000 bugs to make 453 g (1 lb) of cochineal dye.

Now I should probably mention at this point that the cochineal bugs aren't really bugs at all, rather 'scale insects', which seem to be somewhere between insect and plant-parasite-growth thing. 

They don't have any visible legs or antennae, so really the only thing making them bug-like is their hard outer shells. Despite possibly angering some vegans, I find the whole process fascinating.  

Before the discovery of cochineal by colonial explorers, Europe had never seen such a vibrant red. Despite succeeding with colours like blue and purple, European-made red often turned out to be murky, dull and underwhelming, often comprising a mixture of cow dung, plant roots and bull's blood. 

It's thought that Mesoamerican peoples began utilising the cochineal bug as early as 2000 BC, and the process of cultivating and harvesting was fine tuned by indigenous peoples over the ages. The societies of Central and South America had hundreds of years to perfect and economize the cochineal bug, and it was used as a status symbol amongst the dignitaries of the Aztec empire.

Once conquistadors invaded, and stole sack-loads of cochineal to send back to Europe, its popularity, not to mention demand for the product, exploded. European Renaissance painters finally had the 'perfect red', and immediately set to using it in grand portrait paintings. 

This is just one example of the importance of ancient processes, and their relevance to this day. Cochineal is considered a natural dye, and is used in lipstick, yoghurts, juice and even, most bizarrely, some cheap meats like frozen crab.

If it weren't for the indigenous civilisations who first discovered the cochineal bug and figured out it could be used to make dye, Europe may never have produced the rich red pigments we have today. Stuff like this motivates me to keep exploring, but to approach such creative possibilities from a point of collaboration, not exploitation.