Red, carbon-rich life juice from a female insect (cochineal) may carry a different sense of sacrifice or mood, might make you think or feel differently than red from a 2 billion-year-old iron mineral made from the cast of the earliest organisms that breathed into existence Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Personally, I think these two different reds, made at different times on the planet in very different ways, impact us differently. Seems super logical. And this leads me to believe we could be more deliberate about how we choose the materials for our creative expressions.
Heidi Gustafson in Interview: How a Pigment Forager Is Creating an Exhaustive Archive of Ochres From Around the World, by Sara Barnes on December 24, 2019.
I left a pot of malagueta (bay rum) leaf decoction to cool on the stove overnight. By morning, it had turned a luscious dark red hue, the perfect color for this kind of baño (bath). The deeper the red, the stronger the medicine. Malagueta is a well-known medicinal plant in Borikén (Puerto Rico) used to relieve headaches and muscle soreness. The reddish-brown hues are the result of a high tannin content, also found in grapes and cacao, while terpenes contribute to the decoction’s yellow brown undertones and sweet, spicy aroma. The warmth of the red shade hints at its astringent, anti-inflammatory properties, as if the colour itself gives off a subtle heat that repels moisture and pain in my joints. Medicine with a colour. A colour with dimensions beyond its visual perception.
In search for words to capture the more esoteric insights of my collaborations with natural pigments, I came across the writings of artist Heidi Gustafson. I resonated with her intuitive and philosophical approach to pigment foraging, specifically iron-rich pigments known as ochres. So I adopted the term afectos cromáticos, or chromatic affects, as a way to describe the multidimensionality of colour she also speaks about. The phrase describes my efforts to recognize that colour not only has weight, texture and smell – it also holds a plurality of narratives. Pigments are not just mere vehicles of colour, but intersections for different systems of knowledge: historical, cultural, and scientific. By articulating my exchange with them as affectionate, I acknowledge the autonomy of these chromatic beings, whether rock or plant. Based on these musings, the first workshop for the series Rewilding Borikén was named Afectos cromáticos. It was a two-part workshop designed to expand on the nature of colour’s materiality. First, by experimenting with natural dyes using garden plants, and secondly, by creating watercolours with local minerals.
Our first facilitator, Leila Mattina from Trama Cultivo in Aibonito, arrived at the garden Saturday afternoon with baskets full of yellow flowers, giant pots, and gallons of water. Leila’s workshop focused on collaborating with local plants, among them Cosmos flower (Cosmos sulphureus), a plant we initially cultivated in the garden and now spreads like a wild weed. Its orange petals give off a warm orange hue on fabrics. Using Cosmos flowers for dying and ink-making is an ancestral practice that dates back to Mayan communities in southern Mexico. The main colouring agent is a type of flavonoid, or plant compound, known as Coreopsin, an antioxidant that also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Leila taught us how to prepare fabric for dying, and how to create dye baths using this flower. Given COVID restrictions, participants were only allowed to observe Leila’s demonstration of the process while taking notes.
As the class developed and flowers began to brew, I began to think how this flower might have looked like a few thousand years ago, before it evolved into its present day species expression. Many plants we deem useful today are actually a result of a long process of co-evolution alongside humans. I like to believe that selective plant breeding––the process by which we selectively develop certain traits in plants––is a language of affection, driven by desire. After all, the classic textbook definition of selective breeding is the process by which humans use plant and animal breeding to develop “desirable” phenotypic traits. We collect seeds from the plant with the strongest smell, the largest fruit or the brightest pigment. However, domestication is a two way street. As we select plants that benefit humans, plants domesticate us to benefit their own kind. Do plants make us more desirable to them? I even go as far as to wonder about the most simple and mindless gestures we exchange with plants, like running fingers through leaves or breaking up seed pods of plants next to sidewalks or fences, and how these trivial comforts could be ways we perpetuate life for each other. As I finished articulating these thoughts to myself in class, Leila’s segment was over, and we moved on to our second class component.
Zoelis Ocasio, from Zoils-Arte-Ser in Mayaguez, handled the second part of the day’s workshop. Spread across her table were an assortment of colourful rocks, mullers (glass pestles for grinding pigments), color swatches, and trays of all sizes. To begin her workshop she introduced participants to a variety rocks that contain iron-oxides (iron and oxygen compounds). She demonstrated where to harvest and how to process the stones by grinding, sifting and refining them with water to later combine with binders or substances that help the pigment stick to paper.
I interjected during the first half hour of the class and talked about how iron is the most abundant element on Earth by mass. It forms a part of hemoglobin, a protein which helps distribute oxygen from our lungs throughout our bodies. I felt it was important to share how these coloring agents manifest from macro to microscopic scales. Iron oxide is an inorganic compound and not by definition alive, but it helps perpetuate life. It’s also not as static we perceive it to be. All inorganic minerals change on vastly different time scales than humans. The iron oxide deposits in the ocean floor, which cover most of its surface, took about 1.8 to 2.4 million years to accumulate.
Because minerals are not carbon based organisms with nucleii, brains or nervous systems, I wonder why we’re attracted to using iron-based pigments. Perhaps our interaction with iron oxides is not so much an exchange, as with plant selective breeding, but rather a mutual, elemental affinity. The iron inside of me recognizes the iron in this rock or soil. Gustafson likes to call this “the tug”, a sort of intuitive impulse that often leads her to places with iron rich pigments. “Perhaps,” she said, “it’s enough of a start to simply consider these rocks and bugs and pigments as already a creative act, an expression of Earth’s mysterious, elemental imagination.”
At the end of Zoeli’s workshop, participants were able to dabble their brushes in the mineral watercolors she prepared with pigments harvested in her hometown of Mayagüez. She had the raw pigment rocks laid out on the table. Being in the garden, close to the plants and rocks we worked with, added another dimension to the participants’ assimilation of the technical knowledge. Many of them were shocked to realize that these sources of pigments have been sitting in plain sight all along in rivers and roadsides. As I observed the participants’ excitement in learning about these available colour sources, I was reminded how the colony shifts our attention away from looking at the resources available in our land. Our colonizers devise strategies to redirect and dilute our respect to the land, and subsequently our will to defend it. So something as simple as realizing we can make our own watercolors or dyes versus importing them from the U.S. or Europe could compel us to defend our land with more fervor.
I hope that these workshops, along with visual guides presented at the end of each article, can serve as small steps towards decolonizing our minds and our material culture. As we become more in touch with where and how pigments are extracted, perhaps we can cultivate an affection in the form of cognition through the senses and in the way in which we truly learn to appreciate, and even love, the pockets of Earth where they live.
These visual guides are not meant to substitute a mentor-to-peer learning experience. They are simple guidelines that can introduce you to these practices or refresh the knowledge you already acquired during a workshop.