For more than 30 years, Aboubakar Fofana has worked to master indigo dyeing, operating out of his studio in Bamako, Mali. As we speak about his work, he starts to clean up the frayed edges of some plain pieces of fabric that are soon to be transformed into indigo shawls. His focus on the eggshell cloth lying on his work table is almost surgical: perhaps the effect of the scissors, or the stillness of his body contrasted to the industry of his hands and wrists. “Once,” he says, “a woman came to tell me how beautiful she found my work, particularly the finishing stitches. She didn’t know it was hand-stitched. When I told her, she looked at me and said, ‘You, sir, must be difficult to live with.’” We both laugh. Is Fofana a perfectionist? “Maybe,” he says. “If I am, it’s only because I have standards, and is that so bad?”
“Naomi Campbell,” I scoff. It’s not that Campbell isn’t great, just that I have no way to consider Fofana and Campbell within the context of a comparison. In the night air of Fofana’s studio, I catch the ellipsis in the silence between us; the invisible question mark that suffixes his last point. Beside Fofana’s 19,000 followers on Instagram, Campbell’s 4.9 million might make his comparison somewhat reasonable, but we quickly agree that it’s a product or a person that tends to become famous, rather a process. And it is process that interests Fofana. Each indigo textile and artwork he creates is the result of a complex chain that can take anywhere from four months to a year to complete. It begins with the planting of indigo leaves and cotton. Next comes the harvesting of these crops; the extraction of the colour and spinning of the cotton threads; the weaving of the cloth and the stitching of resists to create patterns; all the while preparing vats and keeping the bacteria they contain happy; and then the dyeing and re-dyeing of cotton. The final stage is the unstitching of the resists to display the pattern. Yet each step is an ode to the overarching process, rather than slavish activities in thrall to the product that emerges at the end. The soul of Fofana’s work lies in the singularity of each moment – each stage exists uniquely as a fingerprint does.
In a little fold of Mali, aligned to the grandeur of the sandcoloured stones called the Mont Mandé Mountains, Fofana is walking across a tract of farmland he purchased three years ago. He heads over to his blue-eyed, white horse Garance, and starts to stroke her hair. “There used to be two of them,” he explains, “but the other horse died recently.” I hear him whispering to Garance, assuring her that in time, she will get the partner she needs – “à bientôt” he repeats.
This kind of reverence for nature is essential to Fofana’s craft. Natural indigo is a family of blue dyes that are typically produced from the roughly 800 species or so of the world’s indigo-bearing plants, of which more than 600 species can today be found in Africa, nearly 200 in Asia, about 80 in America, and 50 to 60 in Australia. Indigo is often discussed in terms of “Indigofera”, one common genus of indigo-bearing plants, but Fofana believes that the appropriate context for capturing the magic of indigo is best expressed through the Bambara (Mali’s lingua franca) words for it – the “gala yiri (lonchocarpus cyanescens) and “gala yirini” (indigofera arrecta) that he knew in his childhood. “We were told by the elderly people that if you get a cut or a scrape, you can just take this gala plant and rub it into the wound,” he says. “But we could never take more than what we needed. For everything we took from nature, we had to [ask for] permission from nature.” As we stroll across the farm, which Fofana has planted with gala yiri and gala yirini, he stops me. “Look at this,” he says, smiling. It’s a green leaf with an apex that had been chewed off by an insect or a bird. The elements of air, water and light have already swirled into it, oxidising the exposed flesh into a dark blue that gives the broken leaf a unique accent.
Depending on the species, tender indigo leaves are harvested either just before the plant flowers, or throughout the year, after which they are crushed in a mortar in order to concentrate the leaf matter and the pigment contained therein. Different leaves have different pigment contents – the Japanese persicaria tinctoria plant, for instance, is comparatively low in pigment, whereas those which Fofana uses contain so much that their colouring leaches over your hand when crushed. “Most Europeans believed indigo was a mineral because they only ever received it as dry cakes of blue stuff,” says Fofana, and this knowledge gap between the truth of the plant and the myth of the colour is what led him to create one of his most popular installations, Les arbres à bleus (Blue Trees). Although usually exhibited indoors, Fofana’s favourite iteration of this work was an ephemeral installation on the River Niger: layers of cotton dyed into various shades of indigo, all swirled around tall vertical sticks that stand proud on the sands of the River Niger, whichare coloured with hues somewhere between red and brown. Together, the sand and indigo cotton basked in the sun and moved with the wind blowing beside the blue river. “I wanted people to see, and know that this magic was coming from a plant,” he explains.
After indigo leaves have been pounded, the resultant crushed leaves are rolled into balls which can be stored for many years or transported. In order to be used to dye fabric, however, the pigment in these balls must first be released to make a dyestuff. Through the fermentation process and the action of bacteria which grow in the ferment, oxygen is removed from the vat. The absence of oxygen forces the insoluble indigo pigment to be reduced into a soluble form, known as indoxyl, or white indigo. It is only in its indoxyl form that indigo will bind to fibre. Ash lye is the most environmentally friendly option for this process, but not the only one available. Sodium hydrosulfite is often used as a cheaper substitute, although it is a toxic chemical that degrades the environment, poisons workers, and even kills or paralyses animals which eat their food off the same floor where such waste is deposited. “It not only destroys the environment, it interferes with the integrity of the craft,” says Fofana. “To make 1kg of dried balls of indigo, you need [at least] 10kg of fresh leaves. I used to drive 2,000km going back and forth to get these balls from a small market, and sometimes they would just mix synthetic dye in with the natural.”
Depending on the conditions, it takes a number of days before the bacteria in the liquid will allow the vat to be ready to use. Every day, the health of the bacteria in the vat are assessed, and they are sometimes fed with wheat bran. Once the vat reaches a certain stage, the dyer knows it is time for the vat to be used. The fabric appears yellowish in the vat liquid – it is only when it is removed and exposed to oxygen that the soluble indoxyl oxidises back into blue indigo, creating a chemical bond with the fabric fibre as it does so. “The blue colour is the imprint of the bacteria.”
What, however, is the “certain stage” at which indigo is ready? At some point in our conversation, my curiosity for the details behind the process surpasses my maturity, and I begin asking Fofana for specifications: “How many days?” “How many hours?” “What time of the month?” Such quantifications are useless in a vocation like Fofana’s, an idea encapsulated by the sociologist William Bruce Cameron’s famous dictum: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Fofana judges the needs of his bacteria by smelling the vat, looking at the colour of the liquid, examining the colour of the foam after stirring the vat, and tasting the liquid itself. There is no mathematics behind the cultivation of a successful bacterial life – only careful, trained perception will allow a dyer to gauge what the bacteria need to flourish. “Sometimes, the bacteria will be energised and ready, and you don’t use them at that time, so they become frustrated that you’ve wasted their time,” says Fofana. “Eventually, when you want to dye with them, they give you a colour you don’t want.”
Fofana can produce 12 different colours from a single dye vat, and the vats themselves change over time and with use. A fresh vat produces a strong blue colour, and the more times a fabric is dipped into it, the stronger the chemical bonds with the fabric become. The best indigo-dyed cloth will be dipped multiple times to build up layers upon layers of colour, while as a vat ages the colour it produces gradually becomes lighter. A skilled indigo dyer will cycle through vats as they build up a colour, starting from the oldest and proceeding forwards in order to create rich, deep, layered colours. Even the lightest blues may have actually been dipped multiple times in a vat that is about to reach the end of its life-cycle, so as to achieve the complexity of colour that the bacteria is capable of.
I ask Fofana whether, out of all the colours of indigo he is capable of producing, he has a favourite. After a little hesitation, he pulls up a picture on his MacBook – it shows a man stood with the sky behind him, wearing a headscarf the colour of lightness. “Bagafu, the blue of nothingness,” he says. “It’s the colour that the bacteria give you when they are on their last breath. Every time I am able to create this colour, I feel so grateful that I could enable these bacteria to live through their full life cycle. For me, it is such a gift. When I see this blue, I think of a place we will always desire but can never reach. If I find this spot, this place, I will know that I am no longer alive. And I will be happy then because I do not want to find it while I am still alive. I enjoy this surface of the unknown because it is a question that keeps on giving.”
Fofana’s practice is rooted in the Malian tradition of indigo – a school of dyeing techniques which have been heavily elided and largely lost over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Little documentation exists for this loss, however, and, as a result, a sense of dislocation has grown up around indigo in Mali. While indigo has been present in West Africa for thousands of years, the traditions surrounding its preparation and dyeing techniques seem to have gradually died a death of a thousand cuts.
The reasons for the loss of Mali’s indigo tradition are manifold and complicated, and what follows is a partial account based upon Fofana’s personal research into the decline, but three factors seem to have been particularly important. First and foremost amongst these is the complexity of the process practiced by Fofana and his forebears. The vats of dye created by indigo dyers are living entities that require considerable expertise and experience to maintain and use.
With the emergence of synthetic indigo in 1878 by the chemist Adolf von Baeyer, however, what was perceived as a shortcut emerged – something that might have taken three weeks to make and cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars in materials and labour could now be produced in half an hour. This rapidity of production was alluring for cultural as well as production reasons. In Mali, the darkest shades of indigo such as lomassa, which is nearly black, had traditionally been reserved for royalty and required multiple dips in multiple vats in order to achieve the necessary depth of colour – a work of considerable physical labour. As such, part of the colour’s status was owed to the manner in which the colour denoted the costs of production. With the arrival of synthetic indigo, and the ease this afforded, this link was broken.
Second is the heavy global commercialisation of indigo under the aegis of colonial rule. Modes of production of indigo vary worldwide, as dependent upon the availability of different plant species and variations in methodology. Broadly speaking, however, methods of indigo production break down into two main camps, with a range of variants that then fall between the two. The first type, of which traditions in West Africa and Japan are examples, are fully-fermented techniques, in which the entire leaf matter is used to make a compost which grows bacteria, which in turn help to make the pigment accessible and remove the oxygen from the vat to begin the dyeing process. The other camp, which has been associated with regions of India and is used extensively throughout the subcontinent, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, uses a shorter maceration and fermentation process, after which the leftover vegetable matter is discarded and the resultant indigo paste collected and formed into a pigment. While the two methodologies and their variants grew up in response to material constraints determined by the regions in which they were developed, colonial powers took a particular interest in this second production method for the reason that it lent itself more readily to exploitation and transportation. While both techniques are complicated and require skill to master, the latter is more portable and can be scaled up for industrial production: once indigo is in pigment form, it is measurable, transportable and its use as a dye can be readily taught. A pigment is a more tradable commodity than balls of indigo vegetable matter, for instance, and so while one tradition expanded under duress of exploitation, Mali’s fully-fermented methodology began to recede. Colonial exploitation further exacerbated the decline of the Malian technique with the unprecedented loss of people and expertise caused first by the Transatlantic slave trade, and later by involuntary conscription to the French army during the World Wars.
The third reason for the decline of Malian indigo is its inextricable connection to the country’s history of cotton production. “We used to be the first producers of cotton in Africa, but can you imagine that more than 95 per cent of that cotton is now exported to be transformed?” says Fofana. “And do you know how we receive that elsewhere transformed cotton back? Second-hand clothes.” Mali’s indigo tradition grew up in tandem with its production of cotton, and the two’s fortunes cannot be meaningfully divided. Historically, for instance, Mali produced a range of cottons, none of which were mass manufactured, but rather were hand-spun and hand-woven. Of these cottons, only shortstaple variants (those with a shorter fibre length) are suitable for indigo dyeing.
When Mali came under French colonial rule in the late 19th century, the colonisers took an interest in the nation’s cotton – along with cotton produced in other colonies in Africa and Asia – which they began to export to France as a luxury item; Malian cotton was used heavily for the production of clothing worn by France’s emerging middle classes, and provided a soft, warm fabric that was not as rigid as the linens which were otherwise used. This trade, however, prioritised long-staple cottons, thereby rupturing the symbiosis which had developed between indigo dyeing and cotton production. The trade favoured growing cottons which could be ginned, milled and spun by machine, thereby breaking the industry of the hand-spinners and weavers – as well as those farmers whose cottons were not long-staple – and causing the extinction of many strains of cotton in the process. This rupture proved a major break in West African indigo. The way in which Malian society functioned was broken by colonisation on numerous levels, and indigo was not exempt from this. Fifty-eight years on from Mali’s independence, the nation’s indigo tradition has yet to recover.
“I can say I’m a Franco-Malian,” says Fofana, “but much of what I use in my work is from Mali, most of my raw materials come from there, the climate I need is there. I source heavily from those traditions, and a huge part of my motivation comes from trying to keep those traditions alive.”
Fofana’s introduction to indigo initially came as a portal through which to immerse himself in a personal search for a sense of self. Having been born in Mali, he moved to Paris at the age of 10. Thereafter, it became difficult for him to reconcile the Malian and French strands to his identity. Fofana’s time in France, he explains, was made particularly heavy by the many residues of slavery apparent in popular misperceptions made about Africa and Africans. “I was told that Africans never give anything to the world, the world just gives and gives and gives and all we do is take,” he says. “It made me feel not so great about that part of my identity.” It is a prejudice that the philosopher Achille Mbembe diagnosed in his book On the Postcolony when he wrote, “Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature’. Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance, and poor quality.” This misconception is validated not by the absence of African technology, but by a refusal to even call African innovations “technology”.
Prior to moving to Paris, Fofana had lived between Mali and neighbouring Guinea, where he spent long days being
sent out to lead sheep through open fields. He would stay in the forests all day. “Everything we needed, we had to find from nature,” he says. “And we always found what we needed.” It was in remembering these experiences that Fofana recalled the role of indigo in his childhood, and he subsequently sought further knowledge about its history and properties. “Indigo is not just a plant that produces a colour, it is also an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory,” he says. “The indigo colour is a symbol of its protection.”
This process of self-discovery, however, was difficult. Faced with a lack of first-hand knowledge and no available tutelage, Fofana was forced to rely upon trial and error in putting vats together, training himself through his experiments as well as drawing on fragments discovered within library books in Paris containing pre-independence accounts of daily life in West Africa. Fofana’s work therefore took on the qualities of archaeology, piecing together and revitalising a tradition that largely existed only in the form of scattered memories and partial accounts. “I found indigo when I was looking for myself,” he explains.
“They thought this [land] was dead,” says Fofana, leading me around the 25ha tract of farmland that constitutes the next step in his practice, and which is intended to stand as the culmination of his work in rebuilding something of Mali’s lost indigo tradition. Here, Fofana is working to establish a permanent research centre devoted to indigo and Malian traditions of dyeing. “The soil here is hard and dry[…] and there are better places for planting, with earthier soil,” he says. So why did he choose to build a farm on land he was told wouldn’t yield fruit? “You see that seedbed,” he says to me, pointing at a n’tjankara tree sprouting from a small patch of soil held together by a conference of stones. “Those are made out of rocks that the women piled for an entire year.” The women he mentions are indigenes of Tabou, the town closest to the farm. The farm, Fofana hopes, will serve as a resource for people who wish to learn about the material traditions of their region, as well as participate in the creation of a permaculture farm that will provide food, education and community engagement. “We will use the rest of the rocks to build the other infrastructure we want[…] buildings and such,” he explains. “They thought the land was useless because of this rock, but it has become design material for this land.”
The grass around the farm is blonde and beautifully dry and, when we arrived, we were greeted by the site manager Sounkalo Keïta, who had just pulled a few bright red beetroots from the ground. As Keïta held them up, he began to smile: “C’est magnifique, non?” To counter the commoditisation of export crops such as indigo, Fofana is planting a diverse roster of food crops – carrots, oranges, custard apples, hibiscus flowers, baobab, paw paws, and gourd plants amongst them – which will be made available to the community. “My hope is to encourage people to eat the same way that they grow, and to diversify what they bring to their table each night,” he says. I ask what he wants his farm to eventually achieve and he explains that “to build up the infrastructure, we need to be able to host artists in a textile chain from all over the world to share their knowledge with us and we, share our knowledge with them. There’s also the idea of a small museum that we are working towards. Right now we are working on fundraising and we already have two architects. I want to have all the different aspects of the textile chain and to be able to host guests on artist residences.” Fofana hope that the farm will become a kind of cultural centre dedicated to indigo artisanship and craftsmanship. “This whole project is going to be the art piece of my life.”
In Fofana’s practice, the creation of indigo is inseparable from the socio-economic and political forces that have shaped Mali – the final result cannot be meaningfully divided from the process that generated it. When invited to show his work as part of the Documenta 14 exhibition in Athens in 2017, Fofana showed Ka touba Farafina yé (Africa Blessing), an artwork engaging with Africa’s diaspora, as well as the migration crises that has wrought terrible suffering on Africans leaving their countries in search of “greener pastures”. Fifty-four sheep, one for each African country, were dyed various shades of blue and left to wander a specially prepared area of the campus of the Agricultural University of Athens. In pictures, the sheep appear aloof and unmoved – Fofana says that they didn’t mind the dyeing, but objected to being shampooed. “They weren’t happy about the water,” he says. While in Athens, however, his temporary studio was vandalised by a group of animalrights activists protesting against his use of live sheep and a group of students protested Fofana’s lectures. “I asked them to come in and ask their questions,” remembers Fofana. “When the first person said to me, ‘Did the sheep give you consent to dye them?’ I replied, ‘Did the sheep give you consent to speak on their behalf?’ Indigo is a celestial colour of protection, I don’t wear gloves when I put my hand in the vat because it is 100 per cent natural. It will never harm me. What I do with the micro-organisms in indigo is just as sensitive as what I do with sheep.”
And that captures something essential about Fofana’s practice, which at its root concerns networks and exploring the interconnections between processes and living beings. “My work is the process,” he explains. “I see the beauty in the effect time has on things. For example, I love rust. I am really crazy about rust; the colour, the texture. It’s all a matter of an object’s exposure to time. Why did I choose to work with natural indigo, the organic living plant, when I could have simply poured a synthetic powder and stirred? Many reasons, environmental reasons, personal reasons, but one of them is also because the notion of time is important. When I work with living vats, I have to care about how healthy they are. If there is no more life, there is no more colour. I care more about this life.” Rather than simple artworks, Fofana’s indigo pieces are more like journal entries, stitched and dyed with a multitude of signs and symbols. Through the process of making indigo, Fofana wants to immerse himself in the world. “When we were growing up we were taught: Nin bèè nin,” he says. “All life is equal.”