Re Materializing Colour
Location Senate House South Block - Gordon
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 3


  • Diana Young (University of Queensland) email

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Short abstract

Colour as both a concept, and as practices with coloured materials, has re-materialized in recent case studies. This panel invites contributions from scholars whose research deals primarily with colour as integral to an anthropology of art - whether in contemporary or historical modes.

Long abstract

Although colours are central to our cultural and social interactions with the world, colour is a topic often pushed to the periphery of anthropological study, including the anthropology of art. Thinking of colour as cultural immediately attaches it to human society and so to particular aesthetics regimes, to politics and the experiences of colonialism.

Over recent years some scholars of anthropology and linguistics have argued that the concept of colour is not a universal category at all but a culturally constructed one (e.g. Saunders 1999; Wierzbicka 2008; Young 2011) which arguably appears in many societies only after European colonial contact.

Colour has been described as both a concept and a category, when it tends to be in the singular, and a quality, when it becomes 'colours' in the plural (Batchelor 2001). Coloured materials, have re-materialized in recent case studies but more studies are needed to understand what 'colour' can be and to understand its/their material capacities, and the role they play in culture and society.

This panel invites contributions from scholars whose research deals primarily with coloured materials and/or colour concepts as integral to an anthropology of art - whether in contemporary or historical modes. It particularly encourages papers discussing what it is colours do in a specific cultural and social context. This research might address some of the above considerations and include studies of the various materialities of colour in photographs, film and digital media as well as in artefacts, paintings, gardens etc.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The colour palette as meta-category

Author: Diana Young (University of Queensland) email

Short abstract

The qualities of colours lend themselves to group formation as socially recognised colour palettes. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on Australian Indigenous art, I consider the implications of socially recognised palettes giving way to individualised palettes in works made for the market.

Long abstract

The qualities of colours lend themselves to group formation. I will argue that these can be considered as 'meta categories'. Such meta categories are socially recognised colour groupings which play expressive rather than linguistic cultural roles. A meta category does not require a name to exist but I will call such groups of colours 'palettes' after the European painter's painterly equipment.

In this paper I will first briefly explore how 'colour' in the singular is a culturally constructed category. Next I will draw on my own ethnographic fieldwork on Australian Indigenous cultural products created by people living in the Western desert region. I will discuss examples of local palettes as meta categories. Socially recognised palettes are giving way to individualised palettes in art works. The point of first sale for such work frequently defines its palette and this has epistemological implications for the artists. I will discuss the development these local and individual palettes over time from the mid twentieth century to the present through some case studies which will include some of the following; Hermannsburg pottery and watercolours; Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara art production; the Utopia artists; Papunya Tula.

Finally, I will compare these palettes with contemporary non indigenous artists who are defined by their colour work - such as Katerina Groz - to emphasise how culturally specific palette meta categories are.

Metacolour: Sepia and the Politics of Nostalgia

Author: Natasha Eaton (University College London) email

Short abstract

This talk will explore the relationship between archaic labour and photography in Ceylon with an emphasis on pearlescence and how this might contribute to phenomenologies of light. The economies of pearls and their relationship with visual representation are viewed as allegories of governmentality.

Long abstract

Can the world be thought of in terms of sepia and light? This talk will explore the relationship between archaic labour and photography in colonial Ceylon with an emphasis on pearlescence and how this might contribute to phenomenologies of light. The economies of pearls and their relationship with visual representation perhaps can act as an allegory of colonialism pushed to the threshold of governmentality. The paper examines the photographic practice of Lionel Wendt and Plate & co. -a Colombo based studio.

Turning to the work of Michael Taussig on colour it seeks to explore the power of shamanism and archaic labour. I propose that sepia read in terms of its materiality can offer one mode of thinking about colour, nostalgia and anachronism.

Mineral Materiality: The impact of decorating pigments on ceramic practitioners' perceptions and praxis

Author: Peter Oakley (Royal College of Art) email

Short abstract

This paper will examine how the materiality of ceramic decorating pigments has an overwhelming influence on ceramic manufacturing practice & practitioners' perceptions & praxis. It will also consider the effect digital ceramic print technologies are now having on practitioners' approaches to colour.

Long abstract

The production of brightly decorated bone china tableware has been a consistent creative endeavor in England over the past two and a half centuries, with the resulting objects universally recognized as a distinctive element of British high-status material culture. During that time the artistic styles and decorating processes have changed, but the decorative imagery and application techniques have always been restricted by the material properties of bone china and the mineral pigments used to decorate the wares. In order to demonstrate how the materiality of these minerals influences current manufacturing practice, this paper will present some of the findings from the recent AHRC-funded project: Extending the Potential of the Digitally Printed Ceramic Surface (AH/M004333/1). Primarily a technical and aesthetic exploration of the commercial applicability of digital laser printing technology to ceramic decoration, the project also included an ethnographic examination of subjects' responses to the introduction of the new technology in commercial manufacturing contexts. The paper will explain how the materiality of the decorating pigments and bone china body affects subjects' perceptions and praxis, and to an extent underpins their professional identities, as they contribute to the production of these artworks. It will then reflect on why the new technology of digital laser printing is beginning to alter subjects' perceptions of colour in relation to designing and creating decorated ceramics and unpack how this has been achieved in part through material technological developments that offer new design freedoms, but also by 'black boxing' the materiality of the ceramic pigments.

Battle of Colours: The Politics of Mourning Thai King Bhumibol

Author: Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute) email

Short abstract

A compulsory colour scheme for mourning the late Thai king turned the nation black/white. This was no mere expression of sorrow, but part of a political colour management using bodies and rituals as its prime material carriers. The paper studies how colours shape the Thai political landscape.

Long abstract

This paper addresses the colour politics in Thailand in mourning King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1927-2016), venerated as divine. Upon the king's demise, the military junta made it mandatory to express grief and mourning when appearing in public space, declaring black and white compulsory colours of mourning. Bodies, (social) media, street decorations, works of art: the entire nation turned black-and-white. It is argued that the obligation was not a self-evident ritualized way of expressing sorrow, gratitude or respect, but is part of broader practices of colour management that uses bodies, arts and rituals as its prime material carriers. Taking the intimidating enforcement of the colour code as point of departure, this paper fleshes out how colours have been shaping the Thai political landscape since the 1990s, when people began wearing yellow and light-blue polo-shirts to express their veneration for the king (yellow) and queen (light blue). With economic and political divisions deepening - culminating in the clash between the so-called Red Shirts ('pro-democracy') and Yellow Shirts ('pro-monarchy') and the eventual end to democracy - the mourning period gave the junta the opportunity to conceal the political tensions by engaging the entire population in black/white mourning rituals, as materializations of the supposed 'unique Thai quality of unison'. One focus will be on the call to the people to grow yellow marigolds for decorating houses, shops, streets, statues, portraits and bodies during the cremation period, such to enable the eventual transition from black/white to yellow, the colour of the sacred (cf. Taussig 2009).

Color as Action. Anthony Forge, the Anthropology of Art and Abelam's Paints.

Author: Arnaud Dubois (University College London) email

Short abstract

Driving by an archival research in the Anthony Forge Papers at UCSD, this presentation will explain how in Papua New Guinea, colorization is conceptualized as a way to give life to things and to create « attachment between persons and things » (Gell, 1998 p. 83).

Long abstract

In his unpublished and undated paper (circa 1976) « Art as an action in Papua New Guinea », Anthony Forge remarks that in PNG « mineral colours and vegetable dyes were employed on virtually every surface » (Forge undated, p. 3). He uses Gell's idea of « the relationship between colour and natural processes » (Gell 1975, p. 320), that he calls the « vegetative fecundity », to show that in PNG, the colorization is the most artistic activity and that the « artistic process is the creation of power » made « visually apparent » thanks to paints. Based on his fieldwork in Abelam where « painting is a sacred activity, (…) all supernaturally powerful substances are classified as paint, and (…) art relies very much for its effects on the brightness and magnificence of polychrome painting » (Forge 1970, p. 279), it seems that this unpublished text can be considered as crucial to show the link between Forge concept of « power » and Gell concept on « agency » mediate by their reflexion about colour efficacy in PNG. Driving by an archival research I did in the Anthony Forge Papers at the University of California San Diego, this presentation will explain how in PNG, colorization is conceptualized as a way to give life to things - « life is a power to invent the visible » wrote Merleau-Ponty (1995, p.248) - and to create « attachment between persons and things » (Gell, 1998 p. 83).

Living and performing colour

Author: Dunja Hersak email

Short abstract

This paper, based on field material on masquerades from the Democratic Republic of Congo, amongst others, will consider alternative cultural perceptions and sensory orders in which the properties and experiences of colour participate in a more holistic, processual aesthetic synthesis.

Long abstract

While colour is a subject that many Africanist art historians have dealt with in their publications and exhibitions, the topic is still reliant on a limited number of studies and is in need of critical renewal. This paper demonstrates that Africanists can benefit more from cross-cultural explorations combined with inter-disciplinary approaches than from restrictive Euro-American methodologies. Explorations of colour that consider the visual in conjunction with other senses such as hearing, touch and smell, stand to gain important insight into non-Western cultures' range of perceptions. This broader approach needs to examine the materiality of coloring substances and the role of all their properties within a more holistic, processual and performative aesthetic synthesis.

Kifwebe masquerades of Songye and Luba peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo are just one example showing that colour applications are not a fixed feature and may be ephemeral and subject to shifting perceptions, groupings and evocations. As an inter-ethnic institution marked by colonial and post-colonial events, colour use emerges as a significant indicator of cultural and socio-political variation in space and time. Regional contacts and exchanges, local and distant trade networks and globalizing forces have all impacted on transformations and on the colouring of secular and ritual performances of bifwebe and other creative expressions.

With the emphasis on a perennial definition of authenticity maintained by art market connoisseurship, the red, white and black triadic tradition, especially associated with Central Africa is, in fact, an ahistorical construct obscuring much more diversified, dynamic and different contextual temporalities.

The colourful matter of chant. The materiality of colour in pre-Hispanic and colonial Mesoamerican manuscripts

Author: Davide Domenici (Università di Bologna) email

Short abstract

Discussing the results of non-invasive chemical analyses recently performed on Mesoamerican manuscripts, the paper argues that the predominance of vegetal colours depended on a Mesoamerican notion of the materiality of colour based on a cultural association linking flowers, painting and chanting.

Long abstract

Non-invasive chemical analyses recently performed by the MOLAB Mobile Laboratory on various pre-Hispanic and colonial Mesoamerican manuscripts radically changed our understanding of indigenous painting practices. The chemical identification of painting materials revealed that pre-Hispanic painters working on pictorial manuscripts clearly privileged organic colours, in stark contrast with the abundance of inorganic colours in coeval paintings on other media.

The author of the paper, an anthropologist and member of the MOLAB research team, interprets the scientific data drawing information from both pre-Hispanic artefacts and colonial textual sources, suggesting that the preference for vegetal, brilliant colours was due to a widespread Mesoamerican notion linking the chromatic and aromatic emission of flowers with the vocal emission of chant. Such a notion is attested, for example, by the well-known Náhuatl metaphor in xóchitl, in cuicatl ("the flower, the chant") referring to elegant, formal poetic language. Being "painted with flowers", ritual manuscripts were thus literally composed by a "flowery matter" that was perceived as adequate for their highly structured, chant-like oral enunciation in ritual contexts.

Such cultural-historical interpretation of chemical data allows a deeper understanding of a specifically Mesoamerican perception of the materiality of manuscripts' colours. It also allows a better understanding of the changes that painting practices underwent during early colonial times, when the introduction of inorganic colours in the painters' palette was due - more than to a European technological influence - to the changed conditions of performance of manuscripts that were progressively transformed in "books" in a European sense.

Writing Accidental Colours : the Materialization of my Colours on the Paper Pages of a Poetry Book

Author: Roseline Lambert (Concordia University) email

Short abstract

I will present in this conference how the new materialist theories deeply influenced, in a materialized way, my relation to colours, in my work-in-progress second poetry book untitled "Les couleurs accidentelles".

Long abstract

I will present in this conference how the new materialist theories deeply influenced, in a materialized way, my relation to colours, in my work-in-progress second poetry book untitled "Les couleurs accidentelles" ("Accidental Colours"). The starting point of this book is the Theory of Accidental Colours by French naturalist, de Buffon, published in 1743. Using the concept of "ontological imagination" (Nowak 2013) and the works of Serenella Iovino (2013) about magical realism, I will reflect about the potentialities to open these ideas emanating from social sciences in the construction of a concrete poetry book in colours. Incorporating a poetry reading performance, I will try to situate how my double posture, poetic (as a published poet writing in French in Montréal) and ethnographic (as a PhD student in Anthropology), forces me to continually question my own "colours", my own experiences and my subjectivity with regard to the experiences of the Other inside a specific cultural context.

Iovino, Serenella 2013. Loving the Alien. Ecofeminism, Animals, and Anna Maria Ortese's Poetics of Otherness. Feminismo/s 22, diciembre 2013, pp. 177-203.

Nowak, N. W. 2013. Ontological imagination: transcending methodological solipsism and the promise of interdisciplinary studies Avant : Journal of Philosophical-Interdisciplinary Vanguard, 2013, IV, 2/2013, 169-193.

The impact of chemical colour in contemporary weaving in Bhutan.

Author: Alathea Vavasour (University of Queensland) email

Short abstract

Over the last century colour mixing in designs and patterning has become the strongest characteristic in densely woven cloth. I will explore how colour plays a central role culturally and how weavers are using new colour to produce individual weaving which is reinvigorating the communal aesthetic.

Long abstract

Over the last century colour mixing in designs and patterning has become the strongest characteristic in densely woven cloth. The Bhutanese are interested in maintaining their cultural heritage because it not only binds disparate ethnicities but also counterbalances the unusual dynamic pace of change. The focus on education, relieving high unemployment, the alleviation of poverty, with greater global participation, has found many Bhutanese in a hardened reality between the traditional and the modern. Set against formidable exposure to western influences and economic pressures, weaving as a primary art form shows resilience.

In 1986 the compulsory wearing of traditional dress in public places was formalised which was a consolidating factor in maintaining its viability. Now both Indian machine woven and handwoven cloth is produced in Bhutanese designs and colours and sold in Bhutan, and also cheaper chemical yarns and dyes are widely available.

The technological impacts from using new colour and yarns, have produced dynamic visual qualities previously unseen in the traditional dress. The new colours provide the visual stimulation to produce endless varieties of new colour "mixes". In densely woven cloth more colour is used and colour contrasts have deepened, resulting in more emphasis on overall patterning and visual movement across the cloth.

In this paper, I present speculation about the use of chemical colour, that is informed by what I do know. I will demonstrate how colour plays a central role within the Bhutanese worldview. I will explore how weavers are using new colour to produce individual weaving and reinvigorate their communal aesthetic.

What Color Is Property? Designs on the "Blackest Black"

Author: Eugenia Kisin (New York University) email

Short abstract

Through a case study of the scandal around artist Anish Kapoor's rights to Vantablack, a black carbon substance, this paper explores the histories of controlling colour and the military meanings of this black, arguing for an understanding of the material as absorbing light, heat, and time.

Long abstract

In 2016, the British artist Anish Kapoor caused a minor art world scandal when he acquired the exclusive right to paint with "Vantablack"—a matte black carbon substance grown on a substrate that absorbs 99.965% of visible light to create the effect of a gaping, heat-absorbing hole wherever it is applied. This "blackest black," developed and patented by Surrey NanoSystems, is both material and immaterial. It has the capacity to disappear—a boon for military applications such as thermal camouflage—and the ability to absorb heat; these transformative characteristics arrest time, a temporal quality that was one of Kapoor's motivations for working with the substance. Given these properties and routes of Vantablack, Kapoor's monopoly on artistic applications of the substance were met with various forms of public outcry, the patent containing within it an argument about the right transformation of materials from nature into technology (and art). Expanding on Marilyn Strathern's work on substance and patents and Michael Taussig's writing on the sacred properties of colour, this paper analyzes this scandal from the perspective of the anthropology of art and extraction. Focusing on the questions that Vantablack's material transformations raise about the proper relationships between artistic materials, colour, and property in Euro-American contemporary art worlds, this paper reframes the scandal in relation to the history of color and patents in the art world. Moving from Kapoor's monopoly to artist Stuart Semple's response of a democratized "pinkest pink," this paper re-materializes colour as property in both legal and cultural senses.

Painting with Saturn. Tracking the White Lead in New Spain Painting

Author: Elizabeth Vite Hernández (National Autonomus University of Mexico) email

Short abstract

The white lead, also known in spanish as "albayalde", is one of the main materials in the artist´s palette for its versatility. This paper explores the pigment in the New Spain painting to understand the relationship between painters and the pigment market and trade in local and global networks.

Long abstract

A painting is a complex system in which diverse materials are involved, among them, those responsible for the colour are the pigments. These are relevant as an object of study of art history insofar as they are part of the material culture in which artistic works are inserted (Baxandall 2000).

The lead white is the pigment of greatest tradition in the artist´s palette, it is known that it has been used since Antiquity because both, Pliny and Vitruvius described its use and production (Roy 1993). Until the nineteenth century was the target par excellence, also appreciated for its capacity as dryer.

The tracking of the types of lead white used and their comparison allow us to better understand how New Spain paintings have been preserved to this day as well as their current chromatic appearance. Different types of lead white have already been detected in the viceroyal works, their variety is due to the plurality of this material in the regional and foreign market thanks to the trade routes between New Spain and the sites of manufacture of first quality lead white like Seville and Antwerp (Bruquetas 2002).

This paper studies the documentary sources on lead white technology. Investigate the development of the manufacturing processes of the pigment production industry and its relationship with mining and drugstores. Analyze the networks of trade of materials for painting to generate a panorama regarding the extensive use of lead white in New Spain painting with different qualities and understand the links between this and its plastic effects.

Restoring Rothko's Red: Pinpointing Color at the Harvard Art Museums

Author: Grace Kim (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) email

Short abstract

Exploring a high-tech restoration of Mark Rothko paintings at the Harvard Art Museums, I analyze the different knowledge claims over the faded artworks' original red color and how to recover it.

Long abstract

Reporting on the restoration of faded paintings by postwar American artist Mark Rothko at the Harvard Art Museums, I show how a physics understanding of light and color was used to recover the artworks' original red color. In collaboration with curators and conservators, scientists developed a new restoration technique the museum called "inpainting with light," adopting the conventional restoration practice of filling in the missing areas of an artifact. Sunlight had faded the paintings' original "wine red" into pale blue. Instead of using pigment to reverse this color loss, however, the scientists calculated, pixel by pixel, compensation images that were cast from digital projectors onto the paintings' surfaces. By enrolling light as the medium for color rather than paint, the museum's practitioners claimed, they were able to restore the paintings "without touching" them. This paper considers how these scientists' contributions to restoration practice redistributed art's authentic color through the added materiality of light. It also explores the expert narratives that were both legitimated and ignored in order to reach a consensus over what these paintings' original red color was—narratives that range from eyewitness accounts to calculations of fading photographic dyes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.