An Indigo-colored dream; Searching for “blue gold” at MUFEM in Dakar

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African indigo textiles, with their dark, rich hues and ethereal, geometric motifs have become a recent trend in Western home décor. They are among some of my favorite prints – I remember going through stacks of them on my first trip to Sandaga market in downtown Dakar, in absolute awe of each and every print.

But where exactly does this fabric come from and how is it made? The exhibit entitled “Sur les Traces de l’Or Bleu / Mémoire de l’Indigo Au Sénégal” at La Musee de la Femme Henriette Bathilly in Dakar brings visitors into the world of local fabric makers to answer these questions.

Introduction to Indigo exhibit
Senegalese “Blue Gold”

La Musee de la Femme itself is a point of interest – inaugurated in 1994 on the island of Gorée, and now
currently situated near downtown Dakar, it was the first of its kind on the African continent, dedicated
solely to the celebration of women. Its permanent exhibition focuses on the role of Senegalese women in Senegalese society. It is named after Henriette Bathilly, who was a strong cultural force in Senegal during her lifetime (she was the first West African woman to act as administrator of the Ballet Africain and her voice was well-known from her work with Radio Senegal). And it was Henriette who, in 1975 together with the French Cultural Center, organized the first exhibition dedicated to the story of Senegalese women.

"La marraine de la musée"
Henriette Bathilly, “La marraine de la musée”

“Indigo is a plant, a technique, a fabric, but above all it is a color that fascinates…”, so begins the temporary exhibit entitled “Sur les Traces de l’Or Bleu / Mémoire de l’Indigo Au Sénégal.” Worn by both men and women, a sign of wealth and a wise investment, a means for exchanging “teranga” (or hospitality) in traditional family ceremonies, offered to celebrate births, and used to cover the deceased prior to burial – visitors learn that indigo has a long tradition in Senegal.

Indigo in Senegal
Samples of Indigo in Senegal

There are any number of combinations of hue and motif, depending on the region of origin of the fabric and the imagination of the maker. However, some of the most common motifs are shown here, including “grains of rice,” “fish bones,” and “stairs,” to name a few.

Typical Indigo motifs
Typical Indigo motifs

To apply the motif, the fabric maker takes undyed cotton and stitches the pattern into the fabric, pulling the thread tightly to cinch the material. It is then dipped into the Indigo dye. The part of the fabric enclosed in the stitches is protected from the dye, and either remains white or takes on a lighter shade of blue. The longer the contact the fabric has with the dye, the deeper the shade of blue. After hanging the fabric to dry, the stitches are cut open by hand, one by one, and the motif revealed.

Fabric making technique
Fabric making technique

I found this piece of fabric to be particularly fascinating – the plain white fabric is cut into thin strips and the individual pieces are stitched and dyed. The strips are then sewn back together in an alternating fashion, which creates a checkerboard effect.

Technique close-up
Technique close-up

Though focused mainly on Senegal, the exhibit does show Indigo traditions in neighboring countries. The pagne tissé and bazin of Cap Vert and Mali, a dress from Burkina Faso, and pagne lepi from Guinea Conakry – all go on to paint a rich portrait of Indigo textiles within the region. All in all, a must see exhibit for textile lovers and designers. Running now through 31 Jan 2017, http://mufem.org

Indigo in West Africa
Indigo in West Africa

Lauren Knipping Bolinger, Dakar, Sénégal, 28/11/2016

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