During the 2000 presidential race, a behind-the-scenes graphic designer at CNN arbitrarily assigned red as the color of the Republican Party. Overnight, phrases like “red states” entered our language, and political associations have overtaken many of the rich symbolic messages expressed by red since… well, since forever. It’s time to re-explore and reclaim red’s deeply human heritage—and folk artists joining the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe this July give us the impetus to do it now.
But first, a bit of perspective. Before red, at the very beginning, the sages tell us, there was darkness—timeless, unfathomable black. Then there was light—the penetrating white that balances the dark in a constant cycle of day and night. Linguists recognize this primal pair as the first colors of all languages of the world.
The next color to appear (wherever there is a third) is red, and it often plays a role in creation stories. Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition captures red’s primacy by naming the first man Adam, which comes from the words for red earth. Maori cosmology cites the blood of the Sky Father and Earth Mother, shed in their children’s primeval pursuit of the light and space they needed to grow, as the source of sought-after red ochre. Still other cultures cite fire, sometimes invented, sometimes stolen, sometimes sacred, as red’s prime symbolic trope.
In all of these ancient cases, red expresses vitality and potency. It captures the quickening thrill of new life, recalls humankind’s earliest struggles, speaks to the strength and inventiveness required to protect and nourish our communities. In its most ancient forms, red speaks to our personal, spiritual life force, rather than political power.
Science supports cosmology with physical evidence of how our species has always been drawn to red. Archeological evidence from South Africa’s Blombos Cave shows that humankind was using red ochre over one hundred thousand years ago. This same ruddy-red pigment brings life to the great European cave paintings of the Stone Age as well as the ancient southern African rock paintings of the San people. Batswana descendants of the San are bringing their petroglyph-inspired work to IFAM for the first time this summer, which gives us a chance to experience firsthand the earthy expressiveness of red ochre (nested within a beautiful spectrum of other tones).
In brighter shades, we’ll see red as a color of womanhood this July. Bandhini textiles, whose galaxies of tiny dots are the result of a meticulous tie-dye technique, often incorporate red. In Kutch, the home place of Market veterans Abdullah and Abduljabbar Khatri and Abdulaziz Khatri, lac or madder reds are worn by women in the form of bandhini veils whose colors telegraph the elevated status of married women. Valued by Hindu, Muslim, and Jain communities alike, red is the primary color of Indian weddings—but beyond matrimony, it is associated broadly with celebration, happiness, and luck.
Dinka beaders of Roots of South Sudan see red as a marker of young adulthood and include it in beaded corsets worn by both sexes between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. The work of Kenya’s Beads of Esiteti shows a still broader meaning: red is a symbol of Maasai belonging, without regard to gender or age.
From the New World, cochineal reds come to Market in the form of gorgeous Zapotec carpets, woven with a tapestry technique on upright looms. Juan Isaac Vázquez García’s family coaxes a range of tones from the cochineal vat, from saturated hot pink to deep, deep burgundy, which he often juxtaposes in geometric designs. Porfirio Gutierrez channels the gorgeous abrash of yarns coming out of his sister Juana’s dye vat to create stunning tone-on-tone rugs colored entirely with cochineal. In their community of weavers in Teotitlán del Valle, cochineal brings a sense of history, depth, and authenticity to their work: Oaxaca is the birthplace of cochineal.
Painter Manisha Mishra, returning to the Market from India, uses red in her work for both cultural and personal reasons. “In my own Maithil culture, we worship the female goddess Kali, symbolizing Shakti (Prowess). Kali is associated with red, which is linked to fire, as you can see in a fire ritual devoted to Kali called Hawan. On a personal level, red is an emotionally intense color for me. I associate it with passion, happiness, and love. I think when I use red, my paintings exude energy, but at the same time are soothing to look at.”
In the work of these and other folk artists, red shows its full depth. Whether celebrating women, or just celebrating, whether acknowledging community belonging and heritage or deeply felt personal associations, it presents resonant humanity and radiant warmth. It connects us with the intimate glow of a shared fire and with the heat of creativity.