Catalog Essay – Indigo Narratives

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The Dye That Binds : Indigo Iconographies
-Murtaza Vali

Using indigo-dyed khadi embellished with embroidery, produced in collaboration with fair trade craft collectives in India, Laura Kina and Shelly Jyoti’s project is appropriately transnational, engaging the rich and storied past of this oldest and most treasured of natural dyes.[1] Activating traditional forms and craft practices associated with its use, their collaboration acknowledges not just indigo’s supposed roots in the subcontinent but traces some of the many routes that have carried it around the globe through the centuries, revisiting the painful histories of colonial expansion and exploitation, and spirited resistance to these injustices, that its trade inspired.[2] Unsurprisingly, given these transnational trajectories, both their projects draw on migrant communities and histories—Kina on the multiethnic Chicago neighborhood she calls home and Jyoti on the ninth generation ajrak artisan communities in her home state of Gujarat—and their attendant experiences of displacement and adaptation, disruption and continuity.

Kina and Jyoti’s use of textiles is a familiar feminist gesture, acknowledging the efforts of an earlier generation of feminist artists, who championed crafts such as embroidery and weaving—traditionally associated with women—as viable and vital art practice, challenging the traditional patriarchal hierarchy of art historical mediums. Similarly, their collaborations with skilled craftspeople is not without important art historical precedents, most notably Alighiero e Boetti’s Mappa (1971-1994), a series of embroidered world maps with each country’s territory marked by its respective flag, which were fabricated by groups of Afghani women according to the artist’s specifications and drawings.[3]


A trained textile designer, Jyoti has long been drawn to and repeatedly drawn from India’s rich tradition of traditional crafts. For Indigo Narratives (2009) Jyoti collaborated with a community of ajrak artisans who migrated from nearby Sindh and Baluchistan to coastal Gujarat and brought with them centuries old techniques for resist printing with indigo. In the two dimensional works from this suite a stylized iconography recounts episodes from indigo’s history in India through such craft techniques associated with indigo itself. The indigo plant is emblematized into a precise arrangement of simple shapes and patterns. In the triptych An Ode to “Neel Darpan”, the ethical thrust and moral indignation of Dinabandhu Mitra’s Bengali play of the same name is translated into a simple but powerful set of symbols. Set in 19th century Bengal, which by then had emerged as the world’s biggest producer of indigo, the play was written in 1860, in the immediate aftermath of the Indigo Revolt, a mass protest by downtrodden farmers forced to cultivate indigo by colonial planters for a pittance. Using simple, accessible language, the play graphically and honestly portrayed the peasants’ dire, inhumane circumstances and its subsequent translation and publication in English caused quite a stir in political circles in both Calcutta and London.[4] In Jyoti’s triptych, the colonizers are hawks, dominating the frame, a cruel twinkle in their eyes, their hooked beaks razor sharp; the peasants are worms, defenseless prey, struggling in vain to survive.

While such economy of form is a common strategy in the decorative arts, where stylized patterns repeat, it also recalls the ancient tradition of aniconism in South Asia, which privileges symbolic over anthropomorphic images for representations of the divine: Buddha represented through footprints or a Bodhi tree in the narrative reliefs at Sanchi, or Shiva who continues to be worshipped in the form of a lingam.[5] In Jyoti’s works a comparable strategy is applied to Gandhi, whose successful 1917 satyagraha on behalf of destitute indigo farmers in Champaran, Bihar, garnered him nationwide fame and the title of Mahatma. The spinning wheel, or charkha, closely associated with Gandhi through his championing of homespun khadi as a method of resisting oppressive colonial economies, repeats in different iterations.[6] The symbol now enjoys pride of place on the Indian flag and its simple circular shape is multivalent, recalling not just Buddha’s dharmachakra, but more general sacred forms such as the mandala and bindu. In other panels, modest wooden sandals, Gandhi’s preferred footwear, serve as synecdoches for him, recalling not just his austere life but also his untimely death. A ceremonial procession of similarly shaped footprints in stone mark Gandhi’s last walk through the gardens of Birla House to the spot where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948.

Simple emblematic forms reappear in the trio of sculptural works in the suite. A cascade of bound stick figures, constructed out of indigo-dyed rope and entangled in chains, and a coolie’s jacket glowing deep blue serve as icons of the forced labor and oppression wrought in the name of indigo not just in India, but globally. And while the wind chime-like cluster of discs decorated in various block prints using indigo demonstrates the vibrant creativity of this traditional craft it also serves as a rustling elegy for those who died in its name.


Like other mythical Little Indias—Oaktree Road in Northern New Jersey, Jackson Heights in the New York borough of Queens and Toronto’s famous Gerrard Street—I had heard about Devon Avenue long before my maiden visit. Or rather, I was heralded with tales of Dewan Street—a creolization with helpful phonetic adjustments for ‘V’-challenged South Asians—where I would find the best kababs in the Midwest. Despite what one might think, immigrant enclaves like Devon Avenue are rarely monocultural; immigrants attract other immigrants, from cultures both slightly and very different, who add to the cultural mix, transforming the neighborhood’s look and feel. The Indian and Pakistani pioneers of Jackson Heights have gradually made way for more recent arrivals from Bangladesh and Nepal, reflecting shifts in global geopolitics and immigration patterns. And before the Desis descended in the 1970s, Devon Avenue was largely Jewish and Russian.

In Devon Avenue Sampler (2009) Kina reminds us of the area’s rich multiethnic history and current cultural diversity. Her title acknowledges both the tradition of embroidered samplers but also Kina’s strategy of appropriation and pastiche, providing a seemingly random sampling of Devon Avenue’s specific urban milieu.[7] In earlier work Kina demonstrated an acute understanding of the fact that cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and the stereotypes they might inspire are socially and semiotically constructed, maintained and circulated through popular culture, through advertising and mass media’s familiar economy of signs.[8] Hers is a genre of Pop art with a distinctly postcolonial edge.

            Devon Avenue Sampler is composed entirely of such signs, scattered across a patchwork of variously pattern and colored fabrics, many in shades of indigo, inspired by Japanese boro quilts, modest utilitarian textiles cobbled together from discarded scraps. Local street signs and logos for a kabab restaurant, chop suey house and kosher bakery jostle with an advertisement for waxing and threading services and images of exotic hennaed hands and seductive kohl-lined eyes lifted from product packaging, the latter, a feminist critique of the beauty industry perhaps. Food and fashion, both bodily desires, are often the strongest bonds immigrants hold to their cultures of origin. Additionally, “ethnic” cuisine and dress are integral parts of America’s multicultural landscape and the first encounter with another culture is often mediated through them. Visual tropes of travel and technology services, necessary for maintaining vital links with family back home, are also thrown into the mix.

Formally, its fragmented ground of interlocking planes overlaid with textual and visual fragments, indexical markers of the particular environs of Devon Avenue, recalls the collage aesthetic and papiers collés of synthetic Cubism, which incorporated actual bits of topical ephemera into the picture plane. As anthropologist James Clifford suggests, collage is a particularly apt “way of making space for heterogeneity, for historical and political, not simply aesthetic, juxtapositions.”[9] Other famous portraits of famous streets, which similarly sidestep traditional representational paradigms of street life, also come to mind: Piet Mondrian’s distillation of the energy, rhythm and lights of New York’s famed thoroughfare into a pulsating abstract grid in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), and Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a wonderfully deadpan photobook that simply shows exactly what its title states. Kina constructs a comparable portrait of a multiethnic Main Street USA, its vintage all-American aesthetic retrofitted by various immigrant communities to fulfill their particular needs, desires and fantasies.


In 1930, the legendary Duke Ellington composed a soulful ballad that musically captured a deep mournful melancholy, a sentiment “bluer than blue can be,” a Mood Indigo. It is this mood, which manages to encapsulate not just the cruel histories of colonial oppression and exploitation but also the feelings of displacement, homesickness and nostalgia that plague all immigrants, that pulses as color through the disparate elements of this collaboration, the rich darkness of this alchemical dye, indigo.

Murtaza Vali

New York, November 2009

[1] For a comprehensive history of indigo see Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo (London, British Museum Press, 1998). See also Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette ((New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), pp. 318-351.

[2] “Indigo” is derived from the Latin indicum/Greek indikon meaning “of/from India.” The opposition between roots and routes is borrowed from James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[3] Luca Cerizza, Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa (London: Afterall Books, 2008).

[4] For a history of indigo in colonial Bengal and a translation of Dinabandhu Mitra’s play see Amiya Rao & B.G. Rao, The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992); see also Ranajit Guha, “Neel-Darpan: The Image of a Peasant Revolt in a Liberal Mirror,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1974), pp. 1-46.

[5] For a discussion of the aniconic tradition in early Buddhist visual practice see Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 21 (1991), pp. 45-66.

[6] For the history and strategic deployment of this icon during India’s struggle for independence see Rebecca M. Brown, “Spinning without Touching the Wheel: Anticolonialism, Indian Nationalism, and the Deployment of Symbol,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2009), pp. 230-245.

[7] The embroidered sampler has inspired other contemporary artists as well, most notably, Elaine Reichek. For an extended discussion of her work see Paula Birnbaum, “Elaine Reichek: Pixels, Bytes, and Stitches,” Art Journal, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Summer 2008), pp. 18-35.

[8] In previous projects, Kina has used the melodramatic visuals of soap operas and deconstructed the tropical island paradise fantasy representations of Hawaii. For an overview of Kina’s earlier work see Sarah Giller Nelson, “Laura Kina,” The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation (Chicago: Spertus Press, 2007), pp. 92-94.

[9] Clifford, 3.