Aboubakar Fofana is resident artist at the University of Applied Arts Vienna as well as visiting professor at the Department of Art and Communication Practices during winter semester 2020/21. Fofana is a multidisciplinary artist and designer, known for his work in preserving and reinvigorating West African textile and indigo dyeing techniques. His raw materials come from the natural world, and his artistic practises revolve around the cycles of nature, the themes of birth, decay and change, and the impermanence of these materials. With more than thirty years of experience as a natural dyer, his aim is to share his passion and knowledge of this craft and materials, and enable others to come away with a working knowledge for professional results.
Together with Karin Altmann, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Textiles – Free, Applied and Experimental Art and Design, he will offer two intensive workshops, which are focused on natural indigo and mineral mud dye.
Indigo is the only natural dye that can produce a permanent blue on textile materials. Indigo extraction and indigo vat dyeing, which have been used for over 6,000 years, are among the earliest cultural biotechnological processes. There are over 800 species of indigo-bearing plants found throughout the world, and of these, almost 600 can be found in Africa. Indigo does not appear in plants as a directly usable dye, it is an extract obtained by fermentation. Furthermore, dyeing with indigo is a time-consuming process, because unlike most dyes, indigotin is not soluble in water and requires a vat dyeing process in which chemical reactions occur. When textiles are removed from the indigo vat and absorb oxygen from the air, they change from yellow to green to blue. With every dip in the indigo vat, the colour can be built up from what Aboubakar Fofana calls a light “Blue of Nothingness” to a very deep, dark blue. The dyeing traditions in West Africa are intricately intertwined with many cultural and religious traditions in this region. Fofana’s dyeing method produces blue shades that are unmatchable by any other dyeing process, and have a close affinity with the iridescent blues produced by nature. By understanding indigo as a metaphor for life and interconnectedness of all in existence, Aboubakar Fofana will give insights into his artistic work processes, in which indigo is seen as a unique substance and a conceptual space with historical, social, political, philosophical, spiritual, and artistic aspects.
Mineral mud-dye is another ancient dyeing tradition from what is now modern-day Mali. It is known in Mali as bogolanfini – literally mud-cloth. It relies for its colour on a reaction between cloth dyed in a tannic solution made by boiling up the leaves of several indigenous species of tree, and the iron content found in much of the local soil. It is unusual amongst the families of natural dyes in that it lends itself to a painterly approach and can be used to make intricate designs. Aboubakar Fofana has stepped away from the traditional designs used in bogolanfini in Mali, believing that it is not his place to use signs and symbols, which can no longer communicate their meanings, and prefers to call his work simply mineral mud-dye. He brings to this work his calligraphic discipline, and his pieces in this medium are calligraphic in nature. Moreover, just like with indigo dyeing, Fofana uses the mineral mud-dyeing process not only to achieve colour, but also to transfer protective and healing properties to textiles, our second skin.
Natural Dyeing Workshops with Aboubakar Fofana and Karin Altmann
LIVING BLUE – FROM THE BLUE OF NOTHINGNESS TO THE DEEP DIVINE SKY – Indigo Workshop (Oct. 12-16)
BEYOND THE SKY AND EARTH – Indigo and Mineral Mud Dye Workshop (Oct. 19-23)
The two workshops explain not only the chemistry of indigo, the principles of setting up and caring for an environmentally friendly fructose vat and preparing the mud and the mordant, but also hand stitching techniques, resist dyeing techniques (sewing, folding, or tying patterns) as well as the adequate choice, preparation and post-treatment of the textiles.
The aim of the workshops is to acquire basic artistic and technical knowledge and to develop an experimental process that leads from a sensual, material-centred activity and an experimental basis to creative practice and individual artistic expression. After familiarizing themselves with the principles of indigo dyeing and mineral mud painting, the students will work on a personal project with the support of Aboubakar Fofana and Karin Altmann.
Aboubakar Fofana was born in Mali in 1967 and moved to France at an early age. As a child in West Africa, he was told about green leaves that made blue colours. Years later, already a successful calligrapher, artist and graphic designer living in France, he remembered this story, and started on a long journey to understand indigo and his African heritage. His work reflects the living materials he uses, harnessing their cycles of birth, life and decay, and the seasonal rhythms of nature. His indigo vats are alive, the colour a visible imprint of these natural cycles, and the most challenging part of his work is understanding and working with the living things to allow these colours to become visible. Fofana’s professional life is dedicated to preserving the traditions of fermented indigo dyeing, along with other West African textile techniques and indigenous materials. His artwork is based on his deep animistic belief that nature is divine. He understands the conception and realization of his work as a form of spiritual practice, which he shares with an audience. At the same time his art refers to social injustice, always related to the history of indigo. At the documenta 14 in 2017, Aboubakar Fofana lighted up the largest space in the documenta Halle Kassel with his work entitled “Fundi” (Uprising), an installation that has been created to draw the visitor’s attention to the darker aspect of indigo: a narrative of oppressed people against powers trying to control them, of African slave trade, exploitation, and a rebellion in Bengal against forced indigo farming under British colonial rule, leading to widespread starvation. In Athens, his installation “Ka Touba Farafina Yé” (Africa blessing) referred to the issue of human movement and migration, using 54 live sheep, one for each country on the African continent dyed with natural indigo. In 2015, two years before he exhibited at documenta 14, Aboubakar Fofana started an indigo farming cooperative project involving the local community in the district of Siby in southern Mali, in which the two types of indigenous West African indigo are the centrepiece for a permaculture model based around local food, medicine and dye plants. Although the area used to be covered with large trees, most were felled for charcoal and the land was severely damaged, showing signs of desertification. The ambition of his project is to heal the land, replant trees and demonstrate a complex, entirely organically farmed, agricultural ecosystem, in which all the plants and cycles they undergo support the structure and the short-term goals of feeding local people, the medium-term goal of indigo production and dyeing, and the long-term goal of assisting to maintain biodiversity and preserving the agricultural and cultural heritage of this part of Mali.