What connects Coco Chanel’s iconic Rouge Carmin, the prickly pear plant, and the Vatican's papal robes?
Of course it's the vigorous and carnal shade of red dye derived from grana cochineal, an insect-dye from Oaxaca, Mexico. Here, cochineal is now serving as protagonist and muse to a new generation of artists and creatives.
Alexandra Purcaru, the co-founder of Selva Oaxaca–a cocktail bar in Oaxaca–tells me the origin story of Rouge Carmin to underscore cochineal’s inherent mystique: saturated in carnal reds and temporal auburns, the shade was inspired by an encounter with the immutable power and passion of Venice's 16th-century paintings. It came as a bit of a surprise to its makers that these vigorous, corporeal shades were extracted from grana cochineal, an insect-dye from Oaxaca, Mexico’s culturally dynamic state halfway across the world.
‘It’s more than a visual element,’ she emphasises. Rooted in rich Indigenous ritual and folklore, cochineal’s story is also one rife with imperialism, subterfuge and intense artistic explorations.
Grana cochineal is a dye derived from a, microscopic insects that live on the pads of the prickly pear or nopal cactus. The insects produce carminic acid to protect itself from predators. When dried and pulverised on a stone metate, the insects release the carminic acid, transforming into shades hovering somewhere between intense red and magenta. Added to a mordant, grana cochineal can be manipulated to shades ranging from crimson to pinks, oranges and purples.
Cochineal can be traced back to the second century BC, when the Aztecs and Mayans used it prodigiously in rituals and textiles. While natural red pigments were available in Europe and Asia, they were incapable of producing cochineal’s intense and enduring shades. When the Spanish conquistadors set foot in the New World, they quickly understood the symbolic and practical uses of cochineal. The conquistadors procured cochineal aggressively, and violently, sending the dyestuff across the seas to colour everything from the British empire’s famous red coats to the Vatican’s papal robes. Cochineal transformed into a global commodity, and its currency skyrocketed. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, cochineal’s value was on par with gold. By the mid-18th century, the introduction of chemical dyes pushed cochineal to the fringes.
However, for Oaxacans cochineal is intrinsically linked to cultural identity, and its sanguine energy pulses through the city’s cultural milieu like a lifeforce. For nearly a century, cochineal was cultivated and used by a few dedicated weavers. These days, increased cultivation in village studios and large scale production at Tlapanochestli, a research farm situated in Santa Maria Coyotepec, have made it more accessible. The dye’s reemergence has renewed a sense of curiosity and experimentation among Oaxacan creatives, and the sidewalks of this historic city are smoldering...
Extract from the article Tickled Pink, written by Rachna Sachasinh in Issue 104 Keeping Warm.
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