Paul H. Williams, Arts & Education Writer
Indigo dye, also called indigo, is derived from the leaves of several species of the indigofera plant. The dye is regarded as the only natural blue, which has many shades. The substance that they possess in common is called indicant, and it doesn't need any chemical for extraction.
For decades, indigo dye had been a major commercial product in Europe, regarded as blue gold, with significant export from Asia and South America. In West Africa, it was the solid foundation of centuries-old textile-dyeing traditions. Cloths dyed with indigo suggested the wealth of the wearer, and those who were involved in its production were not so impoverished themselves.
The demand in Europe for indigo and the skills of the West African indigo producers were to give rise to a big indigo industry in the Western Hemisphere. In colonial times, huge indigo plantations using the labour of enslaved Africans were set up in the Caribbean and the American south, notably in Jamaica, South Carolina and the Virgin Islands. Indigo was a major export from Jamaica, and many enslaved people from West Africa came here with their knowledge of indigo production.
However, they were not allowed to be artistic with the dye as there was no leisure time for that. Consequently, indigo production and the indigo trade ceased to exist, on a large scale, if any at all, for many reasons.
Now, a West African woman, Fosuwa Andoh, intends to revive the art of indigo production and dyeing in Jamaica, where she has ancestral connections.
She said she is a descendant of the Trelawny Town Maroons, who were exiled from Jamaica to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in July 1796, and then to Sierra Leone, Africa. Her arrival in Jamaica three years ago to work with the Rose Town Micro Enterprise Project, sponsored by Michelle Rollins and The Princes School of Traditional Arts, was thus like a homecoming of sorts, yet she was born in Sheffield, England, to a Ghanaian father and a Sierra Leonean/Gambian/Ghanaian mother.
"I have history here, my ancestors have history here, no matter how long or short that is. Jamaica reminds me so much of Freetown (capital of Sierra Leone). The first time I came here, I just felt at home. If you see me in Rose Town [in west Kingston] you would be believe I've lived in Rose Town forever," she said.
Her male ancestor who carried the surname Cuthbert didn't come back to Jamaica, so she said she is completing the journey for him, and indigo production is going to be at the centre of her return. And, this time around, using indigo to create art on fabric is part of the plan for this "reluctant academic", who has formally studied African traditional arts, textile and sculpture "as a manifestation of the sacred".
"I was always going to be an artist, there was no doubt about that, from the day I was born, almost," Fosuwa declared in a recent interview with Arts and Education. She attended the top all-girl school in Sierra Leone, Annie Walsh Memorial School for Girls, also attended by her grandmother and mother. But she was not one to toe every line drawn for her. She said she was slightly different from her siblings and begged her highly educated mother to allow her to pursue art.
It was all about freedom to do whatever she liked, art. "As a young African girl growing up, I had a lot of freedom," she said, but Fosuwa had to promise her mother not to do anything to end up in jail and to believe in God. Her mother gave her the freedom to chase her dreams and Fosuwa, too, had honoured her side of the bargain. She said this about her mother: "She let me be who I was, and all my gratitude is to her."
She used her freedom to study the art of dyeing under the guidance of two women, Mrs Camara from Sierra Leone, and Musu Kebbah Drammie from The Gambia. She is now a master drummer, sculptor, and a qualified hot studio glass artist who uses glass as a creative medium. She is also a textile artist, who is widely known in England as a dyer. She had her first solo textile exhibition at Leeds, West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. And it turned out that, at one point, she got tired of dyeing and focused on sculpting.
Yet, her love for the art of dyeing didn't wane, and Jamaica now stands to benefit from this love affair. Fosuwa is serious about her venture, which will include the cultivation of the plant, the production of indigo dye, and the dyeing of textile. She said she wants to set up a studio farm, where the entire process, including training in the art of indigo dyeing, is done. The creative side of indigo production is key, she said.
The idea to revive the indigo industry in Jamaica came out of her PhD research whose working title is: 'Revival, re-introduction of indigo in the Caribbean'. Indigo art was already a tradition in Africa, and since she was here with time on her hands, and since indigo production was already here, Jamaica was perfect.
"I started dyeing at 13, and I didn't realise it would have taken me to this point," Fosuwa said, "Indigo has passed through here, and it was so important to the economy of Jamaica, but there was not a creative side to it." She is eyeing the export market as she said there is a renewed interest in indigo as artisans are becoming less interested in synthetic dyes.