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  • Deb Baumer

Cochineal: Digging Into the Dye's Backstory

Being a guide for the ReVisión: Art in the Americas exhibition this summer was a labor of love. There was so much to study, so many items and ways to explore. It was an eye opener for me. I learned about Indigenous cultures, religious beliefs, exploitation, and the resources of Latin and South America. Those resources included the Amazon rainforest where once rubber was king. In Manaus, a Brazilian city on the Amazon River, the wealth was so vast that horses drank champagne! Of course, that conspicuous consumption didn’t last.

But with all the studying for Revisión, I was most astounded to learn about the red cochineal dye used on the interior of Gloria Cortina’s cabinet, The Bullet, 2016, and referenced in Young Woman with a Harpsichord, Mexico, 1735-50, both from the Denver Art Museum. Indigenous people derived this dye from an acid produced naturally by the cochineal insect (a bug!). This small insect lives on prickly pear cacti and makes the acid to help it deter ants. Moreover, I didn’t know that the world became seduced by the colorful byproducts of this bug. I like bugs like anyone else … just not in my house or bed, and especially not to eat. (Apparently, I have likely ingested over a pound yearly of the dye derived from the cochineal. What can I do to avoid these bugs? I am looking at food labels, where I see that the dye can be found in yogurt, Good and Plenty candy, and Campari liqueur to name a few consumables.) 


Young Woman with a Harpsichord, c. 1735-1750 Artist Unknown, Mexico • Oil on canvas Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer Credit: Denver Art Museum (One of the many paintings on view during the ReVisión special exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

A few months later, while doing a Cross Currents tour in the Southeast Asia galleries, I found the bugs had followed me! I discovered that Indian people also used the cochineal dye from Mediterranean trade in their textiles, seen hanging in G213. Not believing that in my six decades on this earth that I didn’t know about this red dye, I took it upon myself to do some research.

 

I found a book, A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, that is a quintessential look at this red topic. An exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, inspired this book.

 

Some things I learned: The origin of the dye was likely among the Aztec and Maya peoples of present-day Latin America. After the Spanish Conquest, the dye spread to Europe and was prized by artists there.

 

The dye comes from the bug’s stomach acid, as I said before, and this deters ants. In a complex process, the bugs are harvested from the prickly pear cacti, dried, and ground into a fine red powder, which is then used to make the dye. It takes about 70,000 insects to make one kilogram of dye.


Once the dye is harvested, it is primarily exported to Europe. In the past, it has been a multimillion dollar trade commodity and, in the early 17th century, it was known to cost 60 times as much as sugar. The plague, outrageous taxes, and synthetic dyes curtailed the export, as did a decline in consumption by European aristocracies, who were less inclined to dress so elaborately. The Spanish crown, possibly due to their strong influence in Latin America, held a monopoly on the dye until the mid-19th century.


Hand tinted Illustration showing harvesting of cochineal bugs from prickly pear cactus. https://hmsc.harvard.edu/online-exhibits/cochineal/


By the 17th century, Native Americans obtained cloth dyed in cochineal. (The dye from Mexico was exported to Europe to make the cochineal-dyed cloth, then exported to our Native American communities.) This cloth was termed “bayeta.” Navajo and Hopi weavers among the primary recipients of bayeta and would unravel the cloth for the yarn. Plains Indians also used the cochineal dye in their weaves, most notably in the form of Stroud cloth, a woolen fabric named after the town of Stroud, England, where it had been processed and made into cloth.

 

So, that was a slice of history, and oversimplified. Among Native Americans, the passion for the dye has recently reawakened. For example, Orlando Dugi, a Navajo fashion designer, is bringing back the art form. He learned the process of the dye from the internet, and that different mordants (substances that combine with the cochineal) change the color. He found Peruvian cochineal in British Columbia. Check out his red collection! This piece was priced at $4,000, and it sold out.


While writing this article, I also found a Danish documentary about bugs! The film states that by the year 2050, the world population will be 9 billion. Our current food sources will not be able to sustain this population growth, so it appears we need to learn to appreciate and eat bugs!

 

Back to Mia: Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Associate Curator of Native American Art, recently returned from a trip to Santa Fe with some Native weavings using cochineal in tow. I look forward to seeing them on display, and if the labels don’t already mention cochineal as the source for red dye, you can be sure I will investigate!


Red Collection Look 4, Chiffon Dress,2023 • Orlando Dugi (Dine)



To read more about cochineal, here are two excellent books:

A Red Like No Other How Cochineal Colored The World Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson (2015) New York, New York, Skira Rizzoli publications.

Blanket Weaving in the Southwest Wheat Joe Ben (2003) Tucson AZ: The University of Arizona Press.


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