It took artist Aboubakar Fofana one day to set up a fructose-based indigo vat at the Mentis Center for the preservation of traditional textile techniques at 6 Polyfimou Street in Athens. It was December 18, 2016 and the temperature was close to zero degrees Celsius in the courtyard of the small passementerie factory that has been turned into a living museum (part of the Benaki Museums complex) under the visionary and watchful eye of the woman responsible for the creation and continued life of the center, Virginia Matseli. The vat needed 80 degrees of heat, so steam played a part. Daphni Antoniou of the documenta 14 team had organized much of the equipment, including the vat itself and extra tubs for rinsing and rinsing and rinsing thread—always three times. Mr. Spiros, who’s an expert with the Mentis machines, was on hand to help and to observe the full process. Also, Anna Merlo, having gotten to know Fofana’s work in her study of dyeing techniques, had come all the way from Zürich to learn by working alongside someone who does not wish to be called a master or an expert, even if he has been studying and teaching indigo, mud, and other natural dyeing techniques for over thirty years.
The idea which necessitated that vat arrived in late November of last year, in a conversation between Fofana, documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, and myself. Sitting in our offices on Metsovou Street, we reminisced about our first visit to Fofana’s studio in Bamako in November 2015. He had welcomed us with the greeting: “Please, this is not a museum, you can touch everything here…” And we did—getting to know the twelve distinct shades of indigo and how they behave on linen, cotton, or ramie; getting our fingers blue from crushing fresh indigo leaves growing in pots near the clay indigo vats set up in the courtyard outside.
Then, the talk turned to Fofana’s works for the public exhibition and workshops he was planning in Athens and Kassel and we learned of his early passion for calligraphy, his research into scripts developed over centuries on the African continent, and his enduring love of books. The artist and the artistic director agreed that The documenta 14 Reader (then in the final stages of editing by poet and documenta 14 editor-in-chief Quinn Latimer and the Publications team) should have a singular bookmark, made in a way that would weigh as much as the rich texts and images within. The units of this weight were not grams, but it could be said that the process of making the bookmark had to have a gravity that matched the intellectual labor of theorists and writers, and the strength of the poets and image makers. And so came the plan to dye a sufficient length of Greek cotton thread in indigo—enough to make roughly ten thousand meters of ribbon for ten thousand books.
Instead of aiming to achieve a single, consistent color, Fofana opted to let the vat tell its story. Most sections of thread would be immersed three times, achieving a diminishing darkness of indigo as the vat lost its strength with use. The artist saved some length of thread for the lightest and most difficult shade of indigo, achieved with a single, steady submersion. Each dyed skein begun with three rounds of careful pre-washing and finished with three more rounds of careful washing. Then, after drying, the threads were ready to be woven into a 5mm ribbon on the Mentis machines.
The work of hands and threads and indigo and the blessing of the water goddess Faro, whom Fofana thanked before commencing his dye work on December 19, has a precise rhythm, honed through years of practice and passed down for many generations. I recall that during one of my first visits to Mentis, Matseli told me that the grooves which lead the threads to make braids, chords, ribbons, and other passementerie on the decades-old yet still deft machines often follow the formations of traditional Greek dances. Or was it the other way around, the dances followed the weaving of threads? Suffice it to say that dances and textiles are always intertwined and hence the Mentis machines can be said to breathe a certain kind of life-music. Sharing this insight with Fofana, he responded that he had learned about weaving and the world through a sung-spoken lyric.
Kolè Sigui Kan (Song of the Loom or World Harmony) recited in Bambara by Aboubakar Fofana
You do not need to understand this song verbatim to hear or feel the movement of the pulley, the pedals, the shuttle, and the shafts. But it is perhaps worth considering this interpretation the artist made from the Bambara (Bamanan kan) with writer Johanna Macnaughtan:
Song of the Loom
One knows something that another does not
Someone doesn’t know it but another knows it well
Declares the pulley
One goes before another, someone else follows
One follows another but someone else precedes
Beat the pedals
Someone leaves whilst another arrives
Someone arrives and another person leaves
Sings the shuttle
Someone rises up and another falls down
Someone falls down whilst another rises up
Say the shafts
Understanding! Harmony! Accord!
Nothing is as valuable as these
This was how the world was built, this is how it will end
This is how the world was born, this is how it will finish
hammers the beater.
Note how this lyric moves from declaring through beating and singing then saying to hammering. If the parts of the mighty loom are thus variously articulating, what of the dyed and woven thread? For me personally, a textile is also always a text. Watching the indigo-dyed thread pass through the Mentis machines, I realized this rhythmic weaving of so many disparate strands (of technique, of world history, of botany, of alchemy, of wisdom) was a kind of answer to the oft repeated question: “So, what have you learned from Athens?” I would say this is how we learn.
Soon, when you open The documenta 14 Reader you will note that the editors included Aboubakar Fofana among the list of the book’s authors, even though he has not written a single word for the much-anticipated volume. His textile—an indigo ribbon bookmark—quietly invites a more marked reading of all the other texts.