synthetic indigo dye, rice
In the pastoral tradition of laudatory poetry and gentlemanly intellect donned by plantation owners of 18th century colonial America, what harmony could be more praiseworthy than the balance of rice and indigo fields? The two crops complimented each other so perfectly, one growing in the wet lowlands and providing sustenance, the other growing in drier, higher soils and providing sartorial prestige—blue dye running in their blue-blooded veins. That their harvest seasons followed each other consecutively, allowing plantation owners to maximize the labor of their African and Native American slaves, was indeed an economic advantage as well. Is it any wonder that this American indigo blue was the color chosen to host that formative spread of stars and claimed territories on our first national flags?
The first versions of the American flag were hand-sewn patchwork. Minus the batting for warmth, these flags were essentially quilts—symbols of protection, safety, and a place called home. That the material DNA of these textiles tells a story of imperial domination, exploitation, and self-serving expansionism, is unsurprisingly absent from the oral history carried through lineages of those whose ancestors profited.
The tidily-stitched patchwork of the American imagination is sewn directly onto this exploitative nation-building foundation. In this artwork, I have chosen the two media of indigo dye and rice specifically to address these more complex legacies of our country’s formation. Rice, for much of the world’s population, is the essence of sustenance. Blued rice, however, is a ruined food; its ability to nourish the body is lost. In much the same way, the stories we share lack sustenance if they are edited into anemic slivers of the whole truth.
I admit to indulging in a dose of irony by naming this artwork “Colonial Glory.” The title is borrowed from a contemporary quilt pattern found online which obliquely references that first flag with its thirteen stars. The central motif I have used in this work is one of the most widely available star patterns in American quilting, highly adaptable and bearing such contradictory identities as “Lone Star,” and “Native American Star.” It strikes me as the perfect expression of imperial expansionism; the star can increase in size indefinitely as more blocks of patterned “territory” are added, layer by layer, radiating from the center.
Stripes and checks are foundational motifs in the textiles of many cultures, and were especially beloved in West Africa, where so-called “guinea cloths” of plain, striped and checkered blue and white cotton served as currency in the slave trade. It is said that during the height of Britain’s colonial indigo boom, a length of beautiful blue and white cloth could be traded for one human life, to be shipped overseas as labor on the indigo plantations of the American South.
Textiles and their motifs are constantly in motion through the world, and this artwork with its specific symbols is also transient in its own way—many grains coalescing and dispersing again soon after.