Malian-born artist and designer Aboubakar Fofana has worked for decades to reinvigorate, preserve and reinterpret traditional West African textiles, materials, and natural dyeing techniques. A recent article by Keith Recker describes the process of fermented indigo dyeing Fofana has perfected at his farm in the district of Siby, Mali in conjunction with the local community, where two types of indigenous West African indigo are grown.

With leaves harvested from his indigo farm near Bamako, Fofana starts the temperamental process of turning greenery into blue dye. Macerating in the vat, the leaves release indican, a colorless amino acid. Bacteria-driven fermentation transforms this into indigotin—the dye responsible for both nineteenth-century jeans and some of the twenty-first century’s most beautiful artisan textiles.

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After harvesting the leaves, we need to process them as quickly as possible. We place them in a large wooden mortar and pound them to crush them finely. There's a couple of reasons to crush them – firstly it reduces the mass of leaf-matter and creates a concentration. I need ideally 20kg of pounded, dried leaves for one of my 350-litre vats, which represents about 200kg of fresh leaves. There is no way that amount would even fit in the vat. It also allows the indigo leaves to be stored and transported, once they have been crushed, rolled into balls, and dried in the sun. There are still spaces left in the workshop in Athens at the beginning of November – please see the link in my profile. Workshops have also opened through @threadsoflifebali for next March in Ubud – these workshops are being handled through Threads of Life and you can go to their instagram or website to know more. #indigoproject #indigofarm #indigoleaves #indigoprocess #processingindigo #freshindigo #realindigo #naturaldyeing #naturalcolour #slowfibres #slowtextiles #malianindigo #westafricanindigo

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This method of dyeing yields a stunning range of blue shades, achieved by repeated dipping of the material into the ‘live’ vats of fermented indigo.

In Bamanan, a language spoken in Mali, there are twelve words for blue, starting with bagafu, the palest blue, a barely-there color achieved with a single dip. Lomassa, divine blue, is the darkest tone. Saharan Tuaregs treasure lomassa head wraps, whose depth is sometimes enhanced by beating additional pigment into the fibers with a wooden mallet. The indigo, which rubs off onto their skin, serves as a sunscreen—and gives them their nickname, the Blue Men of the Desert.

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