Cochineal: The Red that Colored the World

Navajo Serape Dyed with Cochineal Nazmiyal

Exhibition Review: “The Red that Colored the World” at the Museum of International Folk Art

Cochineal — Since the beginning of modern history, the color red has had a special place in art, decoration, fashion and foods. Red is one of the primary colors and one of the most universally used colors. Warm and attractive, it has the power to instantly draw attention and make people excited, which is why you can see it in everything from foods and fabrics to the logos of multinational companies like McDonald’s and Coca Cola.

Navajo Serape Dyed with Cochineal Nazmiyal
Navajo Serape Dyed with Cochineal

But do you know the most prolific and enduring source of this king of colors? You would be forgiven for not having the slightest idea, because very few people do. The exhibition titled “The Red that Colored the World,” which opened at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico on May 17, 2015, is designed to explore the fascinating story behind its discovery and its explosive global spread during the last four centuries.

When the Spanish conquistadors set foot in Mexico in the 16th century, they discovered something else besides the Aztecs and their fabulous pyramids – a tiny scaled insect called cochineal, from which the native people extracted a kind of acid. When mixed with aluminum or calcium salts, the acid changed into carmine dye, which was used to color foods and fabric different hues of red.

Today, the acid is known as carminic acid. It is produced by the cochineal, found in much of subtropical Mexico and South America, to deter predators. The amount of acid that can be extracted from each insect is equal to 17 to 24% of its dried bodyweight. Once the Spanish learned how to extract the acid and turn it into dye from the native people, they quickly spread it all over the world, making it an important source of income.

The dried bodies of cochineal bugs are used to make vibrant red dye. Nazmiyal
The dried bodies of cochineal bugs are used to make vibrant red dye.

Even after synthetic dyes and pigments were invented in the 19th century, carminic acid extracted from cochineal continued to be used to produce the color red. Besides foods and fabrics, it was widely used to color furniture, paintings and sculptures. It is still used today to color processed foods and textiles. In fact, the increased demand for natural dye has made cultivation of the insects profitable once again. Today, Peru is the largest exporter of carminic dye.

Once the dye was discovered, there was no looking back. It revolutionized the food and textile industries. It changed the way artists and painters used the color red and put it at the pinnacle of the color spectrum. There is no doubt that synthetic dye would have been eventually invented, but without the carminic dye, the world would have to wait for a few centuries to see the effects of the color red.

The exhibition explores the discovery and spread of the color red through folk art, paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, furniture and textile from pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Mexico, Peru and New Mexico. But it is not restricted to that. It also includes paintings, textiles and clothing from Europe, India, the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

Through the use of a variety of interactive, visitor-friendly features and didactic materials, the exhibition invites visitors to explore the central role of the color red in art, paintings, sculptures, furniture and textiles. The exhibition is scheduled to close on September 13, 2015.

Red Rugs at Nazmiyal:

Antique Caucasian Tree of Life Kazak Rug 47503 Nazmiyal
Antique Caucasian Tree of Life Kazak Rug 47503
Nazmiyal Vintage Moroccan Rug 45686
Vintage Moroccan Rug 45686
Antique Konya Turkish Rug 3091 Nazmiyal
Antique Konya Turkish Rug 3091

 

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