BALTIMORE — Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is part of an exciting and multi-faceted project that aims to explore the cultural and economic impacts of growing and using natural dyes in the region.
The initiative, which brings together a diverse network of collaborators and funding partners, is supported by the Maryland Department of Commerce and the Maryland State Arts Council. Seeds for the project were planted in the spring of 2018 during a visit to MICA by representatives from South Korea’s Naju Natural Dyeing Cultural Center, a partner in the project, accompanied by First Lady Yumi Hogan and MICA alumna Rosa Chang ’11 (Illustration BFA).
The project establishes a dye farm at Parks & People Foundation, and employs two part-time farmers — Kenya Miles and Sun (Bobby) English, Jr. ’11 (Drawing BFA) — in order to develop local knowledge related to the growing, processing and use of natural dyes. MICA’s participation supports collaboration with local designers, artists and businesses; intercultural exchange through visiting artists and lecturers; and experiential learning opportunities through an additional natural dye garden at Hidden Harvest, an urban farm in Greenmount West.
The state is providing a combined $350,000 to MICA and multiple participating partners to support the pilot project over the course of two years.
“Each plant at the Dye Farm references so many different stories including cultural traditions, dye processes and complexity not solely within the U.S. regions, but in the world,” Chang, senior project advisor and farming supervisor of the Natural Dye Initiative at Maryland State Arts Council and MICA artist-in-resident, said. “I’m hoping that the Natural Dye Initiative and all activities and research lead to opening many different doors as a stepping stone for a diverse group of art supporters and farming communities in Baltimore City.”
Historical Impact of Natural Dye
As a part of this project, MICA is also expanding its curriculum within the Fiber Department with several courses to learn more about the natural dye process; explore and better understand the ecological benefits and impacts of natural dye use; engage with artists, researchers and farmers from the Baltimore community in collaborative learning; and investigate the social, historical and economic implications of the cultivation and use of natural dyes in Baltimore and beyond.
Because the project involves learning about the cultivation, harvesting and processing of plant matter in order to color cloth, MICA staff and faculty recognize the contemporary process cannot be separated from the histories that precede it. Central to the coursework in MICA's Fiber Department has been to bring the rich dyeing traditions of Africa, the Americas and Asia to the forefront through research and programming with honored practitioners, while acknowledging the challenging history of natural dyes as highly valued commodity crops. Trade in these goods was thus intertwined with European colonization, the enslavement of people and forced labor in the Americas and around the world.
The MICA Natural Dye project team recognizes the complexity and challenge of undertaking this work and therefore has developed principles and protocols focused on racial equity and a commitment to transparency that guides their work.
“This project has given us cause and opportunity to lift the voices of our ancestors, of the earth and of our collective path forward,” Miles, artist-in-residence and farmer at Parks & People, said. “As descendants of unacknowledged stories and stewards of the soil, what we leave must be an advancement on what we have known. We must listen, we must heal and we must seek opportunities for kinship and care in the earth and in each other.”
This project includes three artists — Chang, Miles and Kibibi Ajanku — who have been hired to work as researchers and artists-in-residence for MICA. Each artist is developing programming and research that engages with natural dyes in the context of Baltimore and Maryland, and connects with different issues and communities in the city.
"This non-traditional pedagogical experience utilizes an inclusive and global perspective that should become an educational standard for all," Ajanku said.
The course, “Natural Dye as Intercultural Connector,” was offered in the context of this project at MICA last spring, and brought together students from Coppin State and MICA, as well as faculty and community members. This non-traditional classroom worked together to tackle challenging conversations that arose in the context of their work, and collaboratively curated an exhibition at the Douglass Myers Maritime Museum.
“Natural Dye as Intercultural Connector is more than a class to me. We are a community full of love, passion, and inspiration surrounding culture, art practices, and natural dyes," MICA student Abbey Franklin '21 (Fiber BFA) said. "Natural Dye as Intercultural Connector gathered amazing artists who welcomed these difficult conversations around natural dye, their cultivation and their meaning in diverse cultures."
Upcoming Public Programing:
This coming academic year, as the work with natural dye continues, MICA will host public programming centered on natural dye history and practice.
In October, Gasali Adeyemo, a Nigerian-born artist who resides in Santa Fe will be in Baltimore for a one-week residence to share some of his expertise with MICA and Coppin students and faculty, as well as more broadly with Baltimore and Maryland residents via public lectures and workshops. His lecture will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the James Wheldon Auditorium at Coppin State University, with a reception starting at 6 p.m.
The Spring will include a fashion show featuring local designers working with natural dyes, including Stacy Stube, Sehar Peerzada, Iliana Quander and Bishme Cromartie, as well as artists Glenda Richardson and Rosalind Robinson. These events happen through two courses in the Fiber Department, “Natural Dye as Intercultural Connector” and “Surface Resist Dyeing: Color Through Nature.”
For more information about the project, visit: https://www.mica.edu/annual-events-series/natural-dye-initiative/.