In West Africa, trees are considered like ancestors. They live for such long times and they see so much – they bear witness and hold secrets for the communities around them. They provide nourishment, protection from the elements, and many other essential things. This work is about the reverence we have for trees, their power and presence, and their wisdom. It is also about the alchemy of indigo. Held in the leaves of the indigo plant is a blue pigment that can only be made visible under certain conditions. The magic of how green leaves can make so many shades of blue is a tangible example of how plants nourish us on so many levels, not just providing food and shelter, but even clothing us in their fibres and colours, and linking us spiritually with the natural world.
First exhibited: Maison et Objet, Paris, France 2010
linen panels, fermented vegetable indigo
This work is based on the 12 tones of indigo which a Malian indigo dyer must master in order to be considered a true artisan. It in an exploration of those 12 tones and the myriad possibilities that can be used to exploit the qualities of indigo and produce patterning. It also references the 12 tones of music which so many talented African-American jazz artists explored and exploited. It is a reflection on improvisation within a limited palette, which at the same time can produce unlimited results.
Ka Touba Farafina Yé (Africa Blessing)
First exhibited: Documenta14, Athens, Greece 2017
fifty-four sheep, fermented vegetable indigo, the African continent
This installation uses 54 live sheep, one for each of the countries that make up the African continent, dyed with natural indigo. In Africa, the sheep is a revered animal, providing meat and wool in areas where there is often sparse resources for stock. Once, nomadic shepherds roamed across the continent with huge herds of sheep, but now there are so many boundaries and rules that many nomadic peoples have found their lives and livelihoods severely restricted. I see a parable between these African sheep, and the diverse peoples of my continent.
Across the African continent, for centuries, people have left, have been taken or have been pushed out of their homelands, and this work speaks about the fragility and vulnerability of these people, driven, like sheep, from poor pastures to search for a safe place where they can find their lives. Despite needing to move, these immigrants find many of their avenues blocked by forces beyond their control, leading them to often desperate measures. Blue is a divine colour in West African culture, linking humans to the sky above, and to the unknowable and the world of the spirits, and I have used the medium of indigo to convey a blessing to these symbolic sheep as they start on their journey to new pastures.
This work also speaks of the enormous faith of African peoples as they leave the life and the people they know and love to travel into the unknown, often at cost of their lives. In far distant cities and countries they try to find their place, knowing well that they may never return to their countries of birth but hoping that through their sacrifice, their families will know security. All journeys in Africa, whether symbolic or actual, begin with a blessing and many travellers carry protective symbols with them. I wanted not only to convey a spiritual blessing, but to give a symbolic protection to these African travellers.
And lastly, these sheep walk in beauty and they carry beauty with them, and in this they represent the enormous riches that the African Diaspora has given to the world over the last centuries, and continues to give, as people carry their cultures within them and share them with their new hosts, creating new cultures which enrich us all. In life there is always movement, there is always change, there is often loss, but there is also gain, and want to reach out to the viewer to not only see the loss and hardship suffered, but also the tremendous gifts that Africa has given to all of us.
First exhibited: Documenta14, Kassel, Germany 2017
When many people hear the word 'indigo' a mythical, magical and beautiful blue is conjured in their minds.
This work talks about another, darker aspect of indigo. For centuries, indigo was cultivated and processed by slaves, and its commercial exchanges followed the familiar slave routes of cotton and sugar from Africa to the Caribbean Islands and North America. Despite being one of the greatest motives for the African slave trade, and despite being imported in huge quantities and bringing greater monetary riches than even sugar, this aspect of the slave trade has been almost forgotten in the popular mind.
On the other side of the world, indigo has a similarly difficult history. British colonisers forced Indian (and especially Bengali) farmers to grow indigo in place of their food crops, leading to widespread starvation and fomenting the beginnings of Indian resistance against their colonisers.
This work speaks about the uprising of oppressed people against the powers that try to control them. It comprises a number of different species of indigo plants, a field of indigo, juxtaposed with hanging empty costumes, symbolic representations of the people that suffered from the trade in this most precious of dyestuffs. The delicate translucent costumes turn and move in the breeze, their emptiness talking about both the facelessness and the universality of the suffering caused by the indigo trade. The green plants below provide a living aspect to this work, and show the diverse species of indigo-bearing plants from across the world. They are also there to disprove the often wrongly-held belief that indigo comes from a mineral source; on the contrary, it was the massive work required to successfully cultivate indigo which exacted such a huge human cost. Above this field of indigo, the costumes move continuously, although they are empty they are animated by the breeze, they are alive. An uprising is never static, it gains momentum and support as it begins, and when it is finished, history changes forever. There is a tension between this movement and the emptiness. This work is a homage to the indefatigable human spirit and to the hope that comes from unity against oppression.
Symphony for Untold History
First exhibited: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, USA 2018