Before I left for Australia I called an anthropologist friend in Sydney, who has worked with Aboriginal communities for many years. At the end of our phone conversation I looked at the notes I had scribbled. Here they are:
- It'll take time. Lots.
- Ochre is still traded, even now.
- Red is Men's Business. Be careful.
"I should like to find some gamboge," I said, dreamily, imagining myself in a woodland grove deep in the jungle, learning how to make that gash in the trunk with a curved knife, and later being told the ancestral myths of the trees that bleed yellow paint. "No you wouldn't," said Mr. Li firmly. We all looked up in surprise. What did he mean? "There are landmines there: people get killed for gamboge," he said.
It was a sunny afternoon that still sparkled after earlier rain when I first entered Chartres cathedral. I don't remember the architecture, I don't even have a fixed idea of the space I was in that day, but what I do remember is the sense of blue and red lights dancing on white stones. And I remember my father taking me by the hand and telling me that the stained glass had been created nearly eight hundred years ago, "and today we don't know how to make that blue."
Historyor at least Plinydoes not relate what happened to the young woman of Corinth after her man left. She had, after all, played out her mythical role in the Roman's legend. But then one day, missing my own lover who was far away in distant lands, I got to wondering about the maid, and what could have happened next. Having invented, in a fit of passion, a whole new form of human expression, she was suddenly on her own. She was evidently a creative person, and I imagined her whiling away her now too-spare hours with other art experiments. She may, I fancied, have sketched her beloved's image over the wall until it was full of him, then the floor or the ceiling. Then, as the hours stretched into days and weeks, she may have become accustomed to his absence enough to extend her boundaries. Perhaps she added her own self-portrait, or played with her young nephews and nieces by drawing around their feet or hands (as I saw in those early Aboriginal caves in Australia) to entertain them. She may then have tried to draw trees and dogs and horses and little two-story houses to represent her dreams for the future.
But what if she became tired of using just one variety of paint material? Perhaps, I thought, she may have tried out new blacks and browns. Would she, given the chance to try out charcoal's successors, have preferred lead pencils or Indian ink? Would she have dyed her clothes deepest black, or was it only in the palest of classical robes that she wanted to be seen? And if her boyfriend ever returned to Greece between voyages, would she have used her new knowledge of pigments to decorate her own face for the occasion?
I imagined our heroine experimenting idly with mascaras and liners. First she may have used her own painting material, charcoal, but she would have found it stung a little, when brought too close to sensitive eyes. So then she may have tried an alchemical metal called antimony or "kohl." It is the traditional component of many Middle Eastern eyeliners, and is still used today by cosmetics companies. The word "kohl" comes from the Arabic word kahala, meaning to stain the eyes. Today in Europe kohl is usually seen as an ornament, but in Asia it has often been used as both spiritual protection and health cure. In Taliban-run Kabul you could always tell the fundamentalist soldiers because their eyes were lined with black. It made them look as pretty as girls, but it was worn explicitly to show that Allah was protecting them. I once saw an Afghan father painting his small son's eyes with kohl. He was doing it to protect the boy from conjunctivitis, he said. But that was because he was a modern thinker, he told me. For other parents it was sometimes an attempt to charm demons away. Allah, incidentally, may not have approved of what the Europeans did with the word "kohl." In 1626 Francis Bacon reported in his book Sylva that "the Turkes have a black powder, made of a Mineral called Alcohole; which with a fine long Pencil they lay under their Eyelid." Seeing the purity of the dark gray powder, they had associated it with something else that had been refined and sublimed, and so found a name for alcohol, the bane of Islam.
In those three months the stagnant heat, gurgling excrement, sour wine and poisonous metal would have worked their alchemical magic, the dirt and the smells metamorphosing into the purest and cleanest white, which formed in flakes or scales5 on the gray metal. It was one of the many small miracles of the paintbox, the transformation of shit into sugar.
A fashion statement in medieval Europe was to wear clothes made of a new cloth, imported from central Asia. The cloth was called "scarlet" and it was the pashmina of its time: vastly popular, frequently imitated but at its highest quality extremely expensiveat least four times the price of ordinary cloth. But the curious thing is, scarlet was not always red. Sometimes it was blue or green or occasionally black, and the reason that in English "scarlet" now means "red" and not "chic-textile-that-only-socialites-can-afford-but-which-we-all-aspire-to" is because of kermes.
And this second waysmearing blue-green scum (which had been scooped off the top of the pot, and which smelled like rotten pondweed) onto their pale torsosis perhaps the method the Ancient Britons used to dye themselves a semi-permanent blue. But why would they have done it? Was it just to scare the Romansor would that ritual painting have had other purposes? One possible reason for warriors to use woad is a highly practical oneit is an extraordinary astringent. Wearing it into battle is rather like rubbing on Savlon before walking through a cactus plantation, and having it available after battle is like preparing a primitive field hospital in advance.
In those twelve months I realized I hadalmost subconsciouslybeen looking for a book that would answer my questions about paints and dyes: What does a cochineal beetle look like? Where on the map of Afghanistan can I find the ultramarine mines? Why is the sky blue?and I could not find one anywhere. So I decided to write it myself.
Each person also has their own face painting, according to what their Dreaming is, and they demonstrated the patterns for us by painting their own faces. Would it be possible to paint my face with ochre? I wondered. So Ruth Kerinauia gamely painted her Little Sheep Big Sheep totem on my cheeks and foreheadcandy stripes above the eyes and beneath the chin, then smaller stripy lines along my cheekbones. It was only laterwhen I saw a photographthat I realized she had altered the colors into a kind of tonal mirror image of her own painting. Where she painted white on her own face, she painted black on mine: where she had yellow looking luminous on her black skin, I had red looking luminous on mine. It was as if some of the lines and tonal contrasts were particularly important in the design, so she needed to paint them in a way that highlighted them. Caucasian people, incidentally, are not called "white" but "red" in Tiwi language. I was a moretani: a "hot red face," although they didn't call me that to my hot red face.
Yet there is that dark side to the cochineal industry. The steel vats that I had seen earlier in the factory were full of live, pregnant insects being churned into Color Index Number 4. "Are you a vegetarian?" Antonio asked suddenly. And I said that I was not, although I grieved a little for the three or four bugs I had killed that day to see the blood spurt maroon onto my hand. "I don't want to think what is going on in their heads," Antonio continued grimly. He often got letters from animal rights groups asking him to stop his business. But we agreed there were worse things: once animal lovers had got rid of pig farming and beakless battery chickens it might then be time to look at the carmine plants.
After a day in the Elqui Valley, my hands were stained with blood.