Colour Unearthed - 25 June 2021

12 Jul 2021
12 Jul 2021

In her talk, On the Colonial Histories of Colour,  Dr Luiza Prado de Oliveira Martins reflected on the fascinating series of essays she wrote for Futuress Magazine exploring the colonial histories that attach to a set of vegetal and mineral based colours. The session explored what the unearthing of the problematic and enduring histories of extraction and exploitation that certain colours reference, and what their continued deployment as shades and palettes in a variety of creative media may mean for thinking about colour as archival trace - art histories as material histories in the broad sense and the potential of transdisciplinary aesthetic research today.

As Dr Martins surfaces a relationship between fine art and extractive economies of colonialism through the colour palette based on mineral and vegetal colours, and the extractive and botanical economies that attach to them, this session raised questions on: 

What do these colonial histories of colour mean for fine art todayWhat are we to make of the ways in which colour works to both reveal and conceal its colonial legacies

Further reading:

Keshavars, M., Canli, E., Prado de O. Martins, L., & Vieira de Oliveira, P.J.S. (2018). What Is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A RoundtableDesign and Culture Journal1(10). 81-101.

Prado de O. Martins, L. (2016, February). Pills, genders and design: Speculations on Queer Materialities. [Winter School Presentation]. Aalto University, Espoo, Finland. 

Van Helvert, M. (ed.). (2016). The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future. Valiz: Ueberschwarz.

Speaker Bio: Dr Luiza Prado Martins is an artist and researcher whose work examines themes around fertility, reproduction, coloniality, gender, and race. In her doctoral dissertation she approaches the control over fertility and reproduction as a foundational biopolitical gesture for the establishment of the colonial/modern gender system, theorizing the emergence of ‘technoecologies of birth control’ as a framework for observing—and resisting, disrupting, troubling—colonial domination (see Luiza Prado | Affect and Colonialism for more contributors). Her ongoing artistic research project, “A Topography of Excesses,” looks into encounters between human and plant beings within the context of indigenous and folk reproductive medicine, approaching these practices as expressions of radical care. Throughout 2020, she will develop the long-term garden project “In Weaving Shared Soil” in collaboration with The Institute for Endotic Research. She is currently based in Berlin. She is a founding member of Decolonising Design.

Discussant Bio: Dr Alírio Karina is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow based at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative.



It all started as a conversation with a friend, Nina Paim, the editor of Futuress magazine. She suggested that Dr Luiza Prado Martins, the speaker for our Spirals session, Colour Unearthed, draw on the research she had conducted on the history of plants and colonialism to formulate a series of essays on the colonial history of colour. In 2020, Dr Martins chose the colours red, blue and yellow as the first in this series, a choice inspired by Nina and her history as design students and the prominent place the palette occupied in the Bauhaus movement. The six essays would be split according to vegetal and mineral based colours, and closely interrogate the manifold historical extractive regimes that they referenced. 

In her presentation, Dr Martins shared insights into her research and the methodology she used for emphasising colours as carriers for the “many layers of cultural and political meaning, which shift and change depending on time, context, and location” (Martins 2020).  Each essay is bookmarked with a plant and a painting or public monument on display in either a national gallery or a city and highlights the complex and entangled histories that exist between colour, history, plants, art and architecture. 

The entry on the colour red is discussed as a colour intricately connected to a plant found on the continent of Abya Yala - a designation for the Americas originating in the Kuna language of its indigenous peoples. Following Portuguese invasion, the Caesalpinia echinate tree provided the red ink Europeans used to dye the robes of Catholic cardinals, as well the velvet worn by the upper echelons of its societies, and it also became a source for extracting the red lac used in paint pigment. The second essay, on the colonial history of the colour blue, explores  the relationship between the the introduction of an invasive species of plant, Isatis tinctoria, by the Portuguese to the Azores islands in the 15th century, the production of indigo, its uses in art, but also the ways it bleeds into social histories of garments worn by factory workers and the rise of ‘blue collar’ as a descriptor of the working class. The final essay in the series on vegetal colours profiled the colonial history of the colour yellow. Martins was initially struck by the yellow colourisation of films depicting the middle East and Mexico, such as the film Traffic, particularly how it was used as a filter referencing terror, fear and deprivation in the global south. She then tracked the material history of the colour yellow through dyes extracted from the plant Maclura tinctoria or Chlorophora tinctoria, or ‘dyers mullbery’, which helped produce the soft, sandy yellow we know as khaki, which has its own militaristic and colonial history.  

These essays highlighted colonial themes of extraction, enslaved labour and negative environmental impact, as well as a range of additional and in many instances, uncanny links that are, in some ways, brushed out of mainstream art history and theory. The discussant for this session, Dr Alírio Karina, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow based at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, raised some interesting provocations, which included questioning the consequences of the relationships that Martins setup and how it can influence our ideas about the artworld and all the places in which these colours appear. Discussion also ensued about the possibility of generating a new ‘theory of colour’ – one which could grapple with colour as a mediating form and investigate how our experience of it also influences our ability or inability to see what is producing it.  

Concluding the session, Jethro remarked on how Martin’s methodology, of asserting entanglement, and reading colonial history, art history and material history together and in parallel, offers a means to uncover new genealogies. Her work is evocative for how it portends of a process which could possibly lead to a new ‘theory of colour’, and perhaps even new histories and theories of art. 


Watch a recording of the discussion here