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At SOMArts, 'The Indigo Project' Weaves the Threads of Black History

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An artwork dyed with indigo of three Black women sitting together

The leaves from indigo trees have been used to dye fabric for ages. Through this one plant, one can tell the story of royalty, enslavement and the African diaspora.

The use of indigo dye reportedly originated in India. But for centuries it’s been used amongst nobles in West Africa, where fabrics were made so appealing they were once used as currency. When enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, their ability to harvest and use indigo was at one point more lucrative than cotton.

Now, in an exhibition at SOMArts titled The Indigo Project, a duo of Bay Area-based curators explore the common thread between African descendants in the United States, deep blue dye, and the fabrics we use for art and fashion.

Reflecting this history through an art exhibit is an idea that initially came to Bushmama Africa, an artist and community priest, as she sat in New Orleans’ Congress Square on Halloween in 2017. While she can trace her family’s lineage back to the area, she says, she was looking for something deeper than DNA. She was on a spiritual mission.

“I needed to figure out what was the thread between indigo, denim and cotton, as it relates to us as Africans and African Americans,” says Bushmama.

"Clothesline" by Abayomi Anli
‘Clothesline,’ by Abayomi Anli. (Abayomi Anli)

She began reading and researching, as well as reaching out to people like Isha Rosemond. A post-disciplinary artist and founder of the Black Freedom Fellowship, Rosemond is no stranger to the overlap of art and the African diaspora — whether raising funds for artists in Haiti through the Black Freedom Fund, or being an an artist in residence in the Brazilian organization Mirante Xique Xique.

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The idea clicked (Bushmama calls Rosemond a “spiritual goddaughter”), and a collaboration for The Indigo Project was born.

When asked what attendees should expect, Bushmama says, “They’re going to see a lot of blue.” Laughing and continuing, she adds, “Not so much so that they’re over-inundated. The walls are mostly white. But we threw blue in there where it needed to be.”

Two separate headshots in diptych, both showing Black women stylishly dressed and adorned in indigo
(L–R) Bushmama Africa and Isha Rosemond of ‘The Indigo Project.’ (Courtesy Photos)

By using visual art, audio recordings and artistic lighting, Bushmama and Rosemond aim to lead people on a spiritual journey. Bushmama predicts that eventgoers will “see their grandparents in the faces of some of these people. They’re going to feel some tingles and some moans.”

“The opening is an opening in the most literal sense,” says Rosemond, noting that it’s the end of the year, and with an end comes the beginning of something new.

It also nods to a holiday celebration unlike any other: “It’s the one where they gave the people in the field a day of rest, where they could eat and make merriment with each other,” says Bushmama. “This is how they stayed fortified and strong throughout all the oppression they endured.”

‘The Indigo Project,’ with works from Abayomi Anli, Nikesha Breeze, Ashara Ekundayo, Stephen Hamilton, Courtney Desiree Morris, Rachel Parrish, Bryan Keith Thomas, Bushmama Africa and Isha Rosemond, runs Dec. 9–Feb. 5 at SOMArts in San Francisco. A free opening reception is on Friday, Dec. 9, from 6 p.m.–9 p.m. Details here.

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