BLUE ALCHEMY: Stories of Indigo is an independent documentary about indigo, a blue dye that has captured the human imagination for millennia. It is also about remarkable people around the globe who are reviving indigo in projects that are intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and bring beauty to the world.
Indigo dye has been in use worldwide since antiquity. For centuries it was the world’s only blue textile dye. When trade routes opened in the 1500s, Europeans discovered tropical indigo and over the next 300 years, it became a valuable commodity in world trade. It was a truly global product, in increasing demand due to the tremendous upsurge in textile production during the Industrial Revolution. Colonial enterprises produced massive amounts using forced labor and slavery. Indigo dyed almost all blue textiles from military uniforms to silks to workers’ clothing, including the first blue jeans. Near the end of the 19th century, all this came to a sudden end when synthetic indigo was brought onto the market. But outside the industrial world, in traditional societies, indigo dyeing continued to be culturally and artistically important. In many places it still survives. And indigo is being revived in vital new projects that are working toward poverty reduction and sustainable development.
Filmmaker Mary Lance traveled to five countries to research and videotape the stories of people who are using indigo according to their cultural traditions and those who are reviving it to improve their communities.
Hiroyuki Shindo, a contemporary Japanese textile artist and indigo master, is maintaining a tradition of dyeing in fermentation vats that dates back hundreds of years but is diminishing in Japan. He has inspired younger artisans like Hiroaki Murai, whose family converted their small farm to indigo production. Each year after the harvest, Murai creates sukumo, the indigo compost that is used to create the fermentation vats for indigo dyeing in Japan.
Cecilia Jaimes Lino and her mother Manuela Cecilia Lino, indigenous Nahua women, are carrying on an indigo dyeing tradition. They use an indigo “starter” handed from mother to daughter that is unique to their village in Mexico. In some world cultures, indigo dyeing is infused with a sense of the sacred. Every step in the creation of the Linos’ dye vat is accompanied by ritual. When Hiroaki Murai begins the process of turning his pile of indigo compost, he starts with a prayer.
Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, adire, a traditional indigo-dyed textile with intricate patterns has deep cultural meaning. We explore this with traditional women dyers in southwestern Nigeria, focusing on Nike Davies-Okundaye, who opened art centers to train young Nigerians in indigo dyeing and the making of adire. Davies-Okundaye’s early life was difficult. She aims to empower young people with skills that will give them financial independence. In doing so, she has helped to revitalize the traditional art form and assure that it will remain an important part of contemporary culture in Nigeria.
In Bengal, a region in South Asia that is now divided between India and Bangladesh, indigo has a bitter history. By the mid-19th century, when the British Raj controlled India, peasants there were forced to grow indigo under draconian conditions. They revolted in the “indigo rebellion.” At the end of the 19th century, with the advent of chemical dyes, the industrial production of natural indigo declined around the world. For Bengalis, indigo had become a symbol of oppression, so much so that almost no one in the region would grow it for dye-making. It is now being revived in projects that provide job training and employment for economically disadvantaged rural women in Bangladesh.
Indigo also has a history in the United States. In the 1740s, Eliza Lucas Pinckney began to manage her family’s South Carolina plantation at the age of 17. Along with other planters, she worked for years to develop indigo as a plantation crop. Eventually, it became an integral part of the economy. Indigo and slavery were closely linked. Indigo produced by enslaved Africans supplied the British textile mills of the Industrial Revolution. It was a thriving industry in the southeastern American colonies until the American Revolution cut off the British market.
In Central America during the Spanish colonial period, Indigo was produced on a massive scale from the 1600s until the 19th century, when it was replaced as a cash crop by sugar and coffee. BLUE ALCHEMY tells the story of El Salvador’s recent indigo revival. Following El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, indigo growing and dye-making were used to reintegrate former guerillas and soldiers into the peacetime economy. Since then, indigo projects have developed across El Salvador to provide employment for rural workers while recovering part of the country’s agricultural heritage.
During the California Gold Rush, indigo colored the sturdy pants made for miners that eventually became blue jeans, a symbol of youthful rebellion in the 1950s and a present-day wardrobe necessity. The film explores the history of blue jeans from their invention to a recent eco-jeans project in India.
The title BLUE ALCHEMY refers to the magical process by which indigo-dyed textiles, which look dull green in a vat, emerge into the air and are transformed to a vivid blue. Making the dyestuff itself involves transformation. Green plants are soaked and fermented, the liquid is beat into a froth, and the paste that drops to the bottom is a powerful dye. Indigo’s place in the world has also undergone a transformation. From its historical association with slavery it has emerged as the means by which people are improving society or maintaining their cultural traditions in a changing world. In shooting, we have captured the amazing visual beauty and sounds of the processes—and we’ve striven to communicate the dignity of the people who are doing the work. This project has involved great generosity of spirit on the part of the people who appear in the film. We have tried to communicate that.