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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Conservatory

Celebrating Black History: Tony Williams Indigo Dyed Garments

Tony Williams is a Cleveland based artist whose work has been shown in numerous local and national juried shows international shows. He has also completed several public art projects including Year of the Horse and Year of the Sheep sculptures in Cleveland’s Asia Town and the 100 Leaves sculptures in Beachwood. He serves on the board of the Morgan Conservatory and is an instructor at Praxis Fiber Workshop. Tony Williams is currently writing and illustrating children’s books as well as making wearable paper art dyed with indigo.

Indigo, a vibrant deep-blue dye, is derived from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant family. The dye process requires boiling or steeping and fermenting the leaves of the Indigo plant. Once the fabric is dipped into the dye and lifted into the air it almost magically turns blue. Indigo was cultivated in India, Indonesia, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, and Africa. Each country has it's own history and traditions of using this dye. The oldest known fabric dyed indigo, dated to 6,000 years ago, was discovered in Huaca Prieta, Peru.

Indigo was the foundation of centuries-old textile traditions throughout West Africa. It was commonly sourced from two plants: Indigofera and Lonchocarpus Cyanescens. From the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara to Cameroon, clothes dyed with indigo signified wealth. Women dyed the cloth in most areas, with the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Mandinka of Mali particularly well known for their expertise. Yoruba dyers paid tribute to a patron deity, Iya Mapo to ensure the success of the complex dye process.

Transforming the raw material into a successful dye vat was a complex process requiring great expertise and liable to unexplained failure. It was usually surrounded with ritual prescriptions and prohibitions. The primary ingredients were dried balls of crushed leaves from indigo bearing plants, ash, and the dried residue from old vats. Cloth had to be dipped repeatedly in the fermented dye, exposed briefly to the air, then re-immersed. The number of dippings, and the strength and freshness of the dye determined the intensity of the resulting color. After the dyed cloth had dried it was customary to beat the fabric repeatedly with wooden beaters, which both pressed the fabric and imparted a shiny glaze.

This rich history informs all of Tony Williams’ work. He celebrates his ancestry as well as the importance of indigo’s many spiritual and cultural aspects through continuing the craft of indigo dyed garments. The resulting shades of blue are not only strikingly beautiful, but they also hold a cultural meaning. White is considered a connotation of serenity, insight, and age, whereas blue evokes balanced brightness, richness, and depth.

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Spritney Brown
May 17

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