The Colour Black

August is here along with high temperatures in the UK and it feels like the new way of life that showed up in March bringing short-term changes have become more permanent. Wearing face coverings is a big cultural shift. It seems that many people, myself included have felt this time has been used to reflect, strengthen and reconsider our lives and how the lockdown has been an opportunity to change things we don’t like or agree with. Covid-19 has been a big reminder that there are some things we cannot change and this really has been a test of strength.

The stand-out call for change has been from The Black Lives Matter movement. Their call to action has been pushed into sharp focus during lockdown after the brutal and fatal treatment meted out to George Floyd which was so graphically shown across the media.  Horror, sadness, fear are all emotions I felt when seeing the video clip. I only needed to see it once. To watch it again would be disrespectful to the man humiliated in his last moments.

Seeing all the protesting, awareness raising, I was hearing the word, Black recurring over and over again.

Personally, I have struggled listening to the negative connotations attached to the colour black and to people who are black because I do not believe in sweeping generalisations and stereotypes of individuals and experiences – I recognize it as a colour that represents strength. I’ve always loved the colour black and the last few years have opened my eyes to the many meanings it has both in art and different cultures. Most specifically, while looking into the traditional art techniques from my own Fijian heritage, I discovered that the colour black represents strength. In 2017, I saw the Revolution Russian Art 1917-1932 Exhibition at The Royal Academy and I was truly blown away by the ‘Black Square’ painted by Kazimir Malevich. These representations of black as a positive colour in contrast to it’s usual sinister connotations and negative implications gives some balance to the meaning of this colour. Think of the symbolic representation of Yin and Yang for a very clear visual – both black and white are different and the same in the way the colours are arranged and placed.

In Kassia St Clair’s book, ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ she asks,

‘What do you think of when you see the colour black?’ She then follows with ‘What don’t you think of when you see black?’

This pretty much sums up the many definitions attributed to black. Black is in effect the sum of all colours and is a pretty good metaphor for life which is the sum of every experience and feeling.

Here’s a little bit about what I’ve found out about the colour black from a Fijian perspective and the the role of black in fashion and art in European culture.

The Colour Black in Fiji

When I was growing up, we had pieces of Masi in our family home given as wedding presents to my Mum & Dad. I grew up with them and while familiar, I didn’t really know anything about them other than the mechanics of making them. My discovery of the meaning of the colour black in Fijian art came from a Youtube video I watched about Fiji Airlines new branding while researching the making and decorating of masi cloth.

Masi is the Fijian name for the traditional textile also known as bark cloth or tapa. Found throughout the South Pacific each nation has their own distinctive decorative symbols used for decoration.

This large piece, 3.31 x 4.44 metres of Masi was made mid to late nineteenth century in Matuku or Moala, eastern Fiji. 

This is a beautiful intricate piece despite it's size which was in the Oceania Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2018. 

The strong fibres of the mulberry plant are beaten until the fibres merge and a lightweight cloth is formed. The fabric is strong and its flat surface makes it easy to decorate. Symbols arranged following a pattern from a number of stencils and colour is from paints made from natural materials and by-products like soot.

The making of Masi is a community effort and is still traditionally made throughout Fiji.

Men will usually bring back the mulberry plants from the fields where it grows amongst the taro or other crops.

The bark is removed from the stems and the fibres are removed and soaked so that they soften ready for beating. After a few days of soaking, the fibres are removed and dryed. Once they are dryed enough, the fibres are hung over a trunk beaten until fibres merge and the cloth forms. This can take a long time depending on how big the finished cloth is going to be. Once the cloth is ready, the artist will collect the stencils for their design and choose which elements they want to use in their patterns. Stencils used to be cut from banana leaves but as you see in the video the switch to plastic was made because they can be used multiple times and it makes it easier to be versatile within the motifs.

Designs are applied using traditional Masi Dyes known as Kesa in Fiji. The traditional colours used are black and brown.

To make the dyes the base of both colours is made by scraping Dogo bark from the bark of mature mango trees, boiled and stored for up to 3 months. The sap from the lauci tree can also be used for this purpose.

Black Kesa

To make the black dye, dogo sap is mixed with soot collected from the chimneys of oil stoves. Ground charred wood or root vegetables can be used as a substitute.

Brown Kesa

Brown dye is made by mixing the dogo sap with terracotta clay. In Fiji, terracotta clay is very rare, found in only one location in Lau province on Komo Isaland. Clay is formed into oval bricks onsite and can be stored for years.

To finish

Dogo and lauci saps are applied with an improvised felt pen onto the black print of the masikesa. This fixes the pigment and gives a gloss to the whole finished piece of masi.

The artists print their motifs around the border and then work their way towards the centre by working on the semi-border, then the semi-centre and finally the centrepiece.

Thanks to Jeremiah Veisa from Fiji Musuem who sent me this information derived from the the book,

‘Traditional Handicrafts of Fiji’ by Mereisi Sekinabou Tabualevu, Josefa Uluinaceva, Sereima Raimua

Watch this video to see the amazing and talented masi artist, Makareta Matemosi describing the meanings of the motifs and colours on the artwork for Fiji Airlines. Sadly, she passed away in 2017. Her legacy is the art she leaves behind and the expertise she passed onto the next generations who continue to make masi in the traditional way.

The Colour Black in Western Culture

Growing up in western culture, I’ve been used to the colour black simultaneously representing fashion, mourning and a negative state of mind. It also has other symbolic meaning ranging from scholarship to piety.

In art schools, black was not treated as a colour. Pierre Auguste Renoir said ‘Nature knows only colours’ and in 1946 an exhibition in Paris titled, ‘Black is a Colour’ aimed to shock and turn this idea on it’s head.

Perceptions of black were changing and Renoir later said ‘I’ve been forty years discovering that the Queen of all colours is black’

As I mentioned before, seeing Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ was a seminal moment in understanding this colour. To me it spoke of celebration and encompasses all emotions and visual reactions.

Living through the First World War and the Russia Revolution would have acted like a crucible for the emotions that Kazimir Malevich would have experienced.

Inventing a style of art called suprematism which allowed art to be seen and felt was a radical change. Using basic shapes and colours, the brush strokes are visible and give some clue to the artists emotions and depth to the paintings.

See this 60 second clip from the Royal Academy about this new suprematist art.

The Colour Black in Fashion

Since it’s rise in popularity as a fashion colour in the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, black has persisted as a colour in clothing to represent everything from scholarship to piety.

Black is ubiquitous like the T-shirt and clearly defines the wearer. It is a versatile base colour to add colour, pattern and texture to. That’s what I love about our Black FaceIN T-shirt – the way the Violet print stands out but at the same time is discreet in appearance.

Modern, synthetic dyes can achieve great shades of black which do not have to be harmful to the environment. Good chemical management ensures that waste products from the dyeing process are dealt with correctly and recycled.

With the change in thinking about our impact on the environment, there is a movement looking towards dyeing in micro batches using natural dyestuffs which can be found to hand. I suppose like making the colour black from soot. This was the traditional way to make black and always has been since early man used it to mark the walls of their caves.

I can’t imagine a world without black. What meanings and symbolism it will hold in the future, time will tell.

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