If today people associate African fabrics with the bright colours of wax prints, lace, and kente, as recently as the 1960s indigo blue cloths were ubiquitous throughout much of West Africa. Indigo still dominates the stacked piles of vintage fabrics in my shop and still underlies many later developments in local textile design. Yet only a few quite isolated pockets of natural indigo production and use still remain in remote regions in West Africa itself. The personal journey of discovery that led her to investigate some of those often elusive surviving traces forms the subject of Catherine E. McKinley’s recent book Indigo: in Search of the Color that Seduced the World (Bloomsbury, 2011).
Catherine was the first person to buy a cloth from my first website back in the mid 1990s so we have been talking about indigo and I have been waiting to see this book for a long time. For me it captures both the rewards and the occasional frustrations of a long engagement with West Africa and its people as much as its textile traditions. A blend of social history, ethnography, travel, personal encounter and autobiography in a mix that is at times lyrical, at times less comfortable, it is a fine book that adds something unusual and distinctive to the literature on Africa’s textile history.
Also well worth noting for anyone interested in indigo is this new documentary film, available on DVD - Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo (www.newdealfilms.com) . If Catherine’s book draws our attention to the decline in indigo traditions in Africa, this beautiful film, directed by Mary Lance, looks at current attempts to revive indigo use and maintain important traditions both in Nigeria and in many other parts of the world.