Indigo dyer Aboubakar Fofana on his kind of blue
Words Kevin Braddock
Photographs Jonas Unger
For Aboubakar Fofana, indigo dyeing is both art and technology: it is alchemy; a communion with God, or nature, or both. He doesn’t just make colour; he grows and nourishes the bacteria that creates it. Roll up for his magical mystery tour…
The world has become bluer – not in terms of sentiment, but in the virtual-aesthetic topography dominated by Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter, OSX’s Mail and Safari icons and so on; all of whose default colours lie within the same shade. Unsurprising, really, when you consider that blue is the colour of skies and of mystery – both oceanic and celestial – at least according to one man who makes his living from the strongest of blues: indigo.
Organic indigo dyeing, as it is practised by Aboubakar Fofana, a Frenchman of Malian extraction, is beyond fashion, trend and digitisation, yet remains a technology: a biochemical technology, as Fofana himself puts it, which involves bacteria, water and plants (peculiarly, indigo actually originates in green, in the leaves of the indigofera tinctoria shrub). But it also involves meditative attention.
The process Fofana uses to make shawls, throws and scarves at a painstaking tempo transcends mere manufacture (although it is also that: the labour of handwork) to become something else for him: a communion with a god who may or may not be the same as nature; a reminder of man’s place in the scheme of all living things; and analchemy that transmutes green into blue, not to mention the alchemist himself. ‘Evidently, the human isn’t the most important in the system of nature,’ this leonine, intensely serene man refl ects when we meet one day in Heal’s furniture store in London.
Fofana was born in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and grew up in the suburb of Gennevilliers beyond the north-eastern rim of Paris’s périphérique – and today he off ers his wares through high-end outlets around the world, all the while remembering the animist roots of his practice: labourintensive dyeing raises a smile among the elders back in Mali, who grumble that the same eff ect can be achieved much more easily with synthetic dyes bought cheaply from the market. But Fofana understands the value of practice. In addition to being a technology, he says, ‘It’s an art.’ Something to be marvelled at, cherished and safeguarded. As we settle into our designer sofa, it feels the perfect opportunity to quiz this modern-day sage on his life, the universe, and everything…
Out of Africa
‘Dyeing is an art I developed par passion. When I discovered indigo I was very young, around seven years old. I was on holiday in the village of my grandmother in Mali, in absolutely sublime nature. The adults taught us the art of medicinal plants, learning about which ones were good for fighting illness, about antiseptic and anti-infl ammatory plants, which were poisonous – and these green plants that can make blue. For me it was incredible, this alchemy, the magic of being able to make blue from green plants. I thought, I’m going to try it, and my passion was born.’
Communion and Ecstasy
‘When I work the dye with hands, I feel in total communion with that which I am. It demands a lot of attention, because working with indigo means working with living organisms. They give me all their beauty, their colour – and not just one blue: all blues. I owe them respect, these little creatures in the liquid. This exercise is to bring them to life in the bacterial fermentation tank, using indigo leaves. They are steeped for a week or ten days in an alkaline solution, so that this alchemy, this magic, can be made to occur. ‘That means I give the bacteria the ideal conditions to proliferate, to exist. They are born in the process. I work with high-quality water; the bacteria are very sensitive and can’t exist otherwise. All this attention means that when I work, I feel an ecstasy. This magic, the operation of the air and the jaunâtre (yellowish) and verdâtre (greenish) towards the blues, is the ultimate reward for all the attention I give during a week. The process is a growing of bacteria, in the noble sense of the term, to bring the different nuances of blue.’
The Meaning of Blue
‘For me, blue is intemporality, in the sense that it is the colour of the sky. It’s a colour that will never be démodé. It is the colour of spirituality also. We speak of skies but they are something we don’t know: mystery. Blue is also the colour of peace, a colour that is ‘froide’ [cold] in the sense of calming.’
‘It is possible to control the diff erent tonalities of blue, but at the same time dyeing is an inexact science: above all, it is an art. There are years of apprenticeship to understand the everyday needs of these bacteria. Once these organisms exist, it is necessary to nourish them. They have a nutritional regime – once they are in the tank, and when one begins to work the liquid, the reaction occurs with oxygen to become blue. At the end of the work there are fewer bacteria, which means that at that moment, one must intervene to nourish them so that they can regenerate, letting them rest over two or three days. That way you can work with the same tank for more than a year if you have the skills to keep the bacteria alive.’
Craft and Technology
‘When we talk of technique, we arrive at technology. For me, indigo is what I call a biochemical technology. Extracting 12 tones of blue from a green plant is one of the oldest techniques on the African continent, from the era of Ancient Egypt. You could say it has 5,000 years of history. In terms of biochemical technology, it’s absolutely extraordinary, but it’s also durable and sustainable. What they were doing 5,000 years ago is the same as I am doing today, and in 100 years’ time we can do the same thing. It’s a technology that must not disappear; we should safeguard this tradition. Because synthetic colourants pollute our rivers and that’s not sustainable. This technology respects the environment and the health of man. These plants existed before the invention of synthetic indigo in the 19th century in the laboratories of BASF. For me, technology and craftsmanship aren’t incompatible, they are completely connected.’
God in the Divine
‘In my artistic discipline, I connect to the divine. Do I find God in my work? Completely. I have faith, I am animist; the basis of animism is that every thing has a soul. A stone has a soul, a tree has a soul, animals have a soul. To have faith is to have a fi rm conviction about something, to be convinced about its existence. I have faith in God, I have faith in nature, which is perhaps my god. I don’t have a god with a specifi c form or name, but I believe in the magnifi – cence of nature, and man is just a part of nature. Humans have a tendency to think they are the most marvellous thing on earth, but it’s not true. I myself am part of nature. The work I do with indigo is so marvellous that it is close to the order of the divine. Nature gives us what we need to eat and drink; it gives rain, which gives life to the trees and plans… this is the divine. It goes beyond the human.’
Rus in Urbe
‘Communion with nature in the city is never easy. Today we try to create spaces where we can fi nd nature – when we are too urbanised, we need a moment to take the air. To immerse oneself in nature, to resuscitate oneself: four concrete walls can’t give us that. So, it helps to travel a little, go to parks – Central Park, Hyde Park, Le Bois de Boulogne.’
Tradition and identity
‘I’m a citizen of nowhere. In France I’m a foreigner, when I return to Mali, I’m also a foreigner. It took me a long time to realise that having a double culture was a kind of richness. For years in Mali, they thought I was mad. They said, “You can go to the market and get a chemical powder and make blue straight away…” But that never interested me, synthetic indigo. With synthetic indigo you can dye maybe 50 pieces in a day; with natural indigo, you can make maybe seven. I work with living organisms and I must respect their lives – if not, I kill them; this is another conception or philosophy on life. I identify with Malian society, but also with French society – I identify with French culture, a culture I have made my own. But there is a secular tradition that, over the centuries, is being lost; and in losing it, we lose our souls. So, the work I do is to safeguard a tradition lost to the years, and to be proud of that, even if people say we are mad. That’s very important to me.’