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.  



Appreciation vs. Appropriation

The two main threads that run through my work, my thoughts and my life in general are arts and travel.

In my opinion there are hundreds of reasons that make travel one of the best ways to spend your time and money, but for me the main draw is the possibility of understanding another culture. I want to learn about ancient cultures and the people who inhabit them. I’m fascinated by the development of art and art objects in remote cultures, including their functions and symbolic meanings.

I cast a wide net in terms of the work I choose to research and explore. I’m interested in the universal human impulse to create, which is why I feel the need to explore art practices outside of my own narrow, European heritage. However, there’s a palpable sense that no one quite knows how to approach the topic of Indigenous/Tribal/Ethnographic/Native art - illustrated by the constant flitting between nomenclature, and a reluctance to clarify the genre in any strict terms.

Up until very recently, the set term for such art was ‘Primitive’, and encompassed an array of art objects from non-Western cultures ranging from African masks to Oceanic sculptures. Western artists capitalized on the ‘otherness’ of this art, appropriating its tendency to feature simplified and abstract motifs. Heavy hitters like Matisse and Picasso weaved this symbolism into their own work, and profited off the results. Of course the cultures and communities that pioneered these techniques did not get a cut of the profits, allowing them to sink deeper into what Brigid Delaney of The Guardian calls “a cycle of poverty and appropriation”.

When I think about this issue the one painting that always springs to mind without fail is Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ (1907). Created during the artist’s troublingly-named ‘periode nègre’ (black, African or ‘Negro’ period) that lasted from 1907 to 1909, the piece combines traditional Cubism with the elongated faces, geometric noses and boat-shaped eyes frequently used in African mask-making.

Extrapolated out of the context in which they were traditionally used (African masks are regularly commissioned to honour relatives, used to connect with the spirit realm and included in burial ceremonies), it’s probably fair to assume that the representations were used purely for visual effect.

Laurence Madeline, curator at Musée Picasso, says that “Picasso never copied African art”, but I completely disagree.

What Picasso - and other artists like Matisse and Modigliani - did was essentially pick out the attractive parts of African art and plop them into their own work which was deeply rooted in European history and culture. Aside from a few vague references to Picasso’s interest in the spiritual and supernatural aspects of African art, I’ve struggled to locate any evidence to suggest that he took a deep and respectful interest in the work.

This is also a perfect example of ‘Primitive’ art being viewed as ‘other’, a sort-of novelty rather than a part of artistic discourse. It’s as if indigenous techniques and motifs were paraded on a conveyor belt for Western artists to choose from and use as they wished, with no intention of establishing a rapport with the people who made them or discussing techniques on an artist-to-artist basis.

'Lola de Valence' Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, Livorno 1884–1920 Paris), Lola de Valence, 1915, Oil on Paper, Mounted on Wood | © The Met Museum Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

African Moon Mask, ca. 1880, Wood  | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Indigenous art has always captivated me, and I imagine it will continue to do so for as long as I’m a part of the art world, yet I cringe at the thought of being viewed as having a colonial mindset - interested in the art of these cultures for its strangeness, rather than artistic merit.

As I research the topic further I hope to establish a way of discussing Indigenous arts in a way that’s not overtly Western in its perspective (i.e evaluating work based on aesthetic appearance without taking into account functionality). I also hope to look at indigenous artists working today, to consider how their work fits into the current global art market.


Sources / Further Reading:

Stout, D.B. (1971). Aesthetics in “Primitive Societies” in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 30-35

Muensterberger, W. (1971). Some Elements of Artistic Creativity Among Primitive Peoples in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 3-11

Mattos, C. (2014). WHITHER ART HISTORY?: Geography, Art Theory and New Perspectives for An Inclusive Art History, The Art Bulletin, 96, 259-264

Clarke, C. (2006). The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Art in Unusual Places - Animal Magic of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica was the cultural hub that extended from North/Central Mexico down to the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica. 

An area with an exceptionally rich visual culture - from gold jewellery to monumental ceremonial pyramids, Mesoamerica was home to the cultural juggernauts we call the Aztecs, and the, perhaps lesser known, Mixtecs/Mixtecos.

 The Mixtecs are an ancient indigenous civilization (still around today) whose lives ran parallel to the Aztecs. Many historians consider 'Aztecs' the people of Tenochtitlan (the Mexica people), or perhaps the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, whilst others use the term more like a term of cultural reference - an allusion to a generally 'Aztec' way of life. This makes sense since, despite technically being broken up into around 20 ethnic groups, the Aztecs were united by language, common myths, beliefs and enduring cultural similarities.

To kick off my round-up of notable Aztec artifacts - behold - the stone monkey vessel:

Mixtec Monkey Vessel, 10th - 13th Century, Onyx Marble, Pyrite, Shell | © The Met MuseumCreative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Although this may look like a representation of a spirit on it's way to haunt your dreams, we can tell this sculpture represents a monkey from its positioning - monkeys were often depicted in crouched positions, holding their tail above their head.

The date of this piece suggests that it was created by Mixtecs (they pre-dates the Aztecs slightly), and is thought to have been painstakingly carved from stone. Notice the bowl-like dip in the top of the sculpture, thought to have been carved using bamboo 'drills', before being nicely smoothed out. It's possible, then, that this was used as a trinket bowl of offerings to the Gods.

When I first saw this I stared at it in awe at all the tiny details (those teeth!), until I felt like it's eyes had the ability to emit some sort of Aztec curse, then I stopped.

The inclusion of the monkey in visual culture seems to me to be inherently Mesoamerican. This could be sue to the prominence of the Mexican spider monkey, or the fact that in Aztec myth monkeys symbolized the visual arts, music, dance and play - perhaps due to their mischievous nature. 

In Aztec culture, monkeys weren't the only animal worthy of artistic credit. The image below displays a collection of frog-shaped necklace ornaments. I imagine these were worn like charms on a charm bracelet. 

Necklace Ornaments, Frogs 15th - Early 16th Century, Gold | © The Met MuseumCreative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Perhaps a symbol of status and grandeur, these gold charms would have been worn by Aztec nobility. Frogs symbolised water and rain, and the subsequent success these created in farming and agriculture. Although some Aztecs were literate, many forms of communication still took the form of images, illustrations and glyphs, making visual culture extremely valuable.

These frogs were made using the lost-wax method of casting - perfected to an enviable degree of accuracy by the Mixtecs. Whilst it's unclear whether these ornaments are of Aztec or Mixtec origin, the craftsmanship edges them towards the Mixtec aritsts' canon. 

Another artifact fraught with symbolism is the serpent labret (below). A labret is a piece of jewellery inserted into a piercing just below the wearer's bottom lip - and it's thought this could have been worn ceremoniously during battle. The serpent's intimidating expression would certainly be a good way of psyching out your opponenets. 

Aztec Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, 1300 - 1521, Gold | © The Met MuseumCreative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

The Aztecs worshiped 'Quetzalcoatl', a feathered serpent-God, which this ornament is thought to represent. To emphasize its godliness, the serpent is cast in solid gold. A metal with intense symbolism, gold was thought to have Godly and spiritual qualities on par with those of the sun. 

Horrendously, many examples of Aztec gold were melted down during the Spanish conquest, though fortunately some, like this one, still remain intact.

Sources | | | | sortBy=Relevance&ft=aztec&offset=120&rpp=20&pos=123 | | | Michael E. Smith, 'Chapter 1: The Aztecs of Mesoamerica' and 'Chapter 11: Art, Music and Literature' in 'The Aztecs', Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.