TPJ'15 Episode 3- Traditional Dyeing Research: BLUE

Why are traditional art forms dying in Cameroon? There was a time where natural dyeing and weaving was a well-respected craft. In fact, because of its intense and time-consuming procedure, some colors were reserved for those who held high positions of power and authority within the community. However, this market was shattered when the introduction of artificial dyes brought in from the West came into Cameroon. These artificial dyes were much simpler to make and presented brighter colors that were very attractive to others. Because of the decrease of intense labor in this process, weavers could now sell their creations to audiences who held lower positions of power within the community. This increased their available market range. In addition, some of these natural dye recipes were only passed down from generation to generation and were kept secret in its respected community. However, with the introduction of artificial dyes, anyone could essentially be a weaver and a dyer. One just had to add water to the artificial dye powder.

As it entered into the mass market now with more competition, both the monetary and sentimental value of this craft decreased. Thus, natural dyeing as an art form and as a source of immense income slowly started to fade away. In previous history, many of these skills were passed down generation to generation. For example, the skills and knowledge of a weaver were passed down to his son. However, since stable income from these jobs decreased, many of the next generation migrated into cities to find jobs that could generate income for their families. The generation to pass down these traditional techniques were growing old and passing and the new generation to carry on these practices became increasingly unavailable. So if you want to know anything about traditional crafts, majority of the times you must ask the older generation.

In this video, we follow up on our 1st lead of a man who possibly knew how to extract blue, yellow, black, and green color dyes naturally. My apologies for the video quality in advance. Some Cameroonians get very defensive and aggressive when they see outsiders (a.k.a me) filming them. So sometimes I must film incognito. This… was one of those cases.

The man we met was referred to us by my aunt; my mom’s eldest sister. Her family comes from a quarter in Bom village, Momo Division as Tuanyang. We met the man at his compound ahead of time to greet him, introduce ourselves, and find out if he truly did have the information we were looking for. He shared with us his past work. Some hung on the walls of his house displaying a beautiful instillation of woven raffia bags all in different colors and patterns. Some had elaborate pictures of lizards and some had written messages. All were done by hand on a handmade raffia weaving loom. He obviously seemed to have the skill and expressed with us his willingness to share his knowledge. So, he told us to come back again another day in order to give him time to collect the various materials he needed.

That day had come and I was extremely excited. I mean, this was our first lead! We arrived at his house as he requested. However, this time we were not met with the same willingness he expressed before. He was reluctant and started a list of demands. This is where those who know how to bargain and reason the true Cameroonian way stepped in. My cousin and Auntie Reggie talked to him as I sat in the living room waiting for almost 30 minutes. Finally, he accepted.

He took us to the back of the house and we helped to start a fire. As the flames started to rise, Auntie Reggie weaved together a wonderful story of how she was a tailor at a women’s center and part of her work as a teacher was to learn how to dye. She wanted to learn the process so she could share it to her students because they needed to dye the clothes they were going to sew. The tailor part of the story was true. Everything else…was not. But it was a story that made him feel more comfortable. As she continued to speak with him in the common dialect (Metta), she shared with him her background, her own village, and her family. Soon, he became more open and responsive.

Finally, as the water reached a boiling point his excitement was present. He started to show us the process of extracting blue from a plant known as Blood Medicine. As he prepared the materials, he shared with us the times at the height of his business. When the missionaries were still in Cameroon, they would commission artists and he would make a lot of the bags for them. Though natural dyed bags were still in demand at that time, the demand for the artificially dyed bags with brighter colors was rapidly increasing. As a result, he learned how to make and use both dyes and even mixed the two together. It kept him in business for a while until the Missionaries left Cameroon.

Our first dye from the Blood Medicine was a success. It gave the fabric swatches a beautiful cloud blue color (see picture reference below). We continued our research with yellow which he demonstrated by pounding the seed of an avocado. At this point, I could no longer video tape incognito as I had to get fully involved in the process. But to conclude our findings, the pear seed did not give yellow but gave a soft peach color. Green was always a simpler dye because it is a color most plants have. Finally, when we reached time to do the black color it was getting rather late and he did not yet gather all the appropriate materials. We ended our night off there and thanked him generously for sharing his time with us.