The Indigo Dye

ACI Artist Leader Stephen Hamilton 

Project: "Yoruba Empowerment in Nigeria" 2015-16

Placement: Osogbo, Nigeria

Hometown: Boston, USA 

Learning traditional textile art at the Nike Art Center in the village of Ogidi Ijumu was at first very difficult. A small town surrounded by mountains, Ogidi Ijumu reminded me much of my family’s origin in southern West Virginia. I became incredibly homesick as the place and people reminded me of my past. I found myself caught in between the role of an outsider or insider once again.

I struggled to distinguish new experiences from familiar ones; however, I was cured by the village’s sheer beauty. I enjoy climbing to the top of the mountain behind my workshop in the evenings. The summit was covered with potsherds and the view of the surrounding farms was absolutely breathtaking. 

I began observing nature more carefully and deeply. Outside of the workshop, beside the concrete indigo pots grew a cotton plant and an Indigo flower. Both of these plants hold powerful and tragic connotations, as they are two of the major crops that fueled the plantation economy that lead to the enslavement of so many people. As I watched Ogidi women expertly span cotton into thread, I started to think about the manipulation and exploitation of African knowledge as well as cheap African labor. African expertise of the labor-intensive process of extracting blue dye from Indigo plants was crucial to the success of this industry in America.

I prepared indigo bath and laboriously wove my first piece of Kijipa (plain hand-woven cotton cloth). After the dye fermented in the cocoa pod ash water (a process that usually takes 5-7 days), I began to dye the Kijipa repeatedly. The indigo had a strong putrid smell, but the process is magical as the cloth turns blue as it hits the air after absorbing dark green dye solution.

Although I have created over one hundred tie-dye pieces this year ranging from muslin to canvas, there was something special about the Kijipa. The process made me felt more real, more authentic, and almost sacred, as it had been imbued with the real indigo dye. I will continue to learn and explore Nigeria and myself as I embrace more new experiences.