First exhibited: Documenta14, Kassel, Germany 2017
antique linen chemises, linen panels, living indigo plants, fermented vegetable indigo
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.