What Does Colour Mean?

March 2022

I carry out research into natural dyes and their extraction and explore how this knowledge relates to geography and culture. Nature is unpredictable and therefore so are the colours it produces. Location, seasons, pollution and water are all factors that interfere with the colours extracted from any plant. So each hue corresponds to that particular moment, story or tale and has its own meaning.

In order to bring my ethnobotanical research to life I created an analogue machine that represents the production chain involved in dying yarn. This hand-operated machine transforms local plants into colours and dyes and knits the yarn, while at the same time telling anthropological stories. By pulling the yarn, the machine starts working: the wool gets a geographically specific mineral treatment to aid fixation, is soaked in a botanical dye and is turned into a handmade knit. Whether it is Eucalyptus from the Andes, Maytenus laevis from the jungle or dandelion from Europe – the colours they produce hold the key to many local stories.

In this project colours document and evoke stories of human civilisation and the landscapes, places and culture represented by them. Colours are not random – each is the consequence of specific biological imperatives or chemical mechanisms. Water and minerals create plants; plants create colours; and colours define the relationship humans have with their surroundings. Using ethnobotanical methodology, which implies an understanding of local customs and traditions in relation to plants, and using botanical dye techniques to investigate plants and their functions, I have tried to develop a better understanding of the environments I have investigated.

My research began in the Andes mountain range in Peru, continued in the Amazon jungle, and then moved to various European cities. The ecosystems I researched presented differences in water and soil composition and places where plants can be found. Water is an element that defines the well-being of a specific place on the basis of where this element comes from and its accessibility. At the same time its composition in terms of micro elements can favour, together with climate and other geographical and geological factors, colour extraction and certain peculiarities in terms of brightness and mordanting (or fixative) strength.

The Apu Wanimmarka is a peak in the Andean mountain located over 3,500 metres above sea level in the Cusco region of Peru. The research I carried out in this area involved analysing a specific geological condition as well as the two native communities (N.C.) who live in that area, N.C. Mullak’as Misminay and N.C. Kacllaracay. Their connection to nature occurs on a daily basis; their houses are made out of mud and logs, they grow their own food and the plants they collect are used either as tools, food or medicine. The proximity of the mountain slopes to the Maras salt pools conditions the quality of the soil and water in the area. The water transported to the houses in the villages is salty and therefore rainwater is collected in large plastic containers. Despite harsh climate conditions due to the altitude, over 126 types of potato are cultivated and eaten here and served boiled with uchucuta sauce, a spicy sauce made of wild herbs such as Tagetes minuta, also known as huacatay. Knowledge is passed orally from one generation to the other, children help in the field with sowing and harvesting and are taught about the uses and properties of wild plants in their daily life.

About 3,300 meters lower down, in the middle of the jungle, where weather conditions are favourable for the growth of many different species of wild plants and danger is a constant factor, the lifestyle is totally different. Nature is taught to children through frightening stories of jungle demons, such as the “Duende Rojo” (the Red Demon), a terrifying creature that lures children into the jungle to kill them. Deadly animals, insects and plants are a reality that people living here face every day. At the age of 10 local kids are usually capable of providing for themselves and know most of the medicinal and edible plants. The most commonly used medicinal plant is the Croton lechleri known as Sangre de Grado, a red resin used to prevent infection and keep the immune system strong thanks to its antioxidant active compound. Nature is so prolific that agriculture is not necessary, most subsistence needs are easily accessible in the wild.

In Western Europe the research we did showed clearly that inhabitants have a very peripheral relationship with wild plants. Wild vegetation grows between concrete buildings and busy roads and is determined by that specific city's conditions. In each of these places vegetation helps to keep the city attractive, liveable and healthy but it has no vital function for the sustenance of the population. Less than 30% of people here are aware of the practical uses of wild plants. Due to the high amount of pollution and chemicals sprayed on green areas, they are forced to forage outside the city centre.

Ultimately my research shows that colours are much more than light waves that hit our optical nerves. They also carry a synthesis of anthropological stories, biological imperatives and local chemistry revealed to me during my travels and personal discoveries. This project is a way for me to collect as many plant stories as possible so as not to lose the precious knowledge that characterises the relationship humans have with their surroundings.

Giulia Pompilj is a material and research designer whose practice seeks to blur the distinction between science and storytelling. Born in Rome she graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2020 and has always been fascinated by nature and different cultural norms and practices. After an internship in Peru she discovered how much there is to learn about the world of plants. She started looking into their uses and how climate and other factors affect their appearance and colour. Above all, she explored the stories and memories they carry and their significance for different communities.

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Some members of the Kaclleraccay Native community in Peru on a break during a sowing day.
Ceferina and Cleofé harvest Baccharis latifolia, a plant that is common in the area of Cusco in Peru, from which they will extract the colour green.
Gregoria and Santiago extract the pink from the roots of Quinchamalium chilense by boiling it in water.
Colours extracted from native plants chosen to represent the women of the WARMI project, Peru.
At 3,600 meters above sea level, in the Peruvian Andes, mother and daughter return home after a day in the fields.
The colour purple is obtained from the ‘Sambucuruntu’ fruit, commonly eaten on Good Friday in Cusco, Peru.
The colour purple is obtained from the ‘Sambucuruntu’ fruit, commonly eaten on Good Friday in Cusco, Peru.
This article appeared in DAM80. Order your personal copy.