Molleno, Saint James, ca. 1805–1845. Best known for creating the nineteenth-century altar screens at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, Molleno here directly applied pigments on hide, a technique practiced by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico prior to the Pueblo Revolt. Water-based pigments on hide, 59 × 38 × 1 ½ in. Museum of International Folk Art, gift of the Historical Society of New Mexico. Photograph by Addison Doty.

This, it may be said, is a story to dye for. It is a story about a diminutive, unusually endowed female spirited out of the New World by Spanish conquistadors nearly five hundred years ago to make her mark across at least four continents and contribute more wealth to the Spanish Empire than anything else they took home from the Americas except silver.


It is a story about a color, a hue of unprecedented quality, appreciated by the Aztecs and Peruvians for nearly two millennia before the Spanish appeared but previously unknown to Europeans: a special Red, a versatile, enduring, light-resistant, attention-demanding Red.

And it is a story about the circularity of creativity that unwinds some of the artificial distinctions often made between “folk” art and “fine” art despite their sometimes deeply intertwined genealogy.

All this has been woven remarkably together in the brilliant exhibition The Red That Colored the World, through September 6, at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. Curators Barbara Anderson and Carmella Padilla spent fully six years to research and organize this diversely original show. Recognizing the coexisting nature of “folk art and fine art” in this undertaking, the National Endowment for the Humanities contributed about $400,000 of the approximately $1 million it took to create the exhibit.

The heroine of this saga, as you may have surmised, is certainly a female, though not a woman. She is a bug — an insect. She is barely the size of the smiley face living in your laptop. Her name is cochineal (also known formally by her Latin family name, Dactylopius coccus).

“Red occupies a privileged place in the color hierarchy,” said Anderson, “and American cochineal reigns as the queen of reds.”

As Padilla put it, “Red is the power color,” adding, “Historically and today, red has an emotional draw, a material draw, and an inspirational draw, and all the ideas it stimulates have to do with emotion and power and love and life.”

Red is the undisputed, universally pursued color in virtually every culture. Red relates directly to blood and life and death, to wealth and power and prestige. It speaks — screams sometimes — of sex and passion. Romans and early Arabs regarded red as a symbol of virility, while one modern writer stated that red lipstick “is more than anything else about female strength.” Neither St. Valentine nor Santa Claus would go out without it. Nor Rudolph. It’s been the inspirational banner for some major revolutions. From the fifteenth century, it has been the team color of the College of Cardinals of the Vatican. And, there are too, unavoidably, the red tie and the red dress that provide a color code to the modern tribal rites of the mighty and needy in Washington.

“This is an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade,” said Padilla. “Everybody, everywhere knows red, everybody wants red. Not everybody necessarily knows how red is made naturally or, in particular, that it is part of our indigenous culture in the Americas.”

After this exhibition, they will. Cochineal lives, breeds, and feeds on the pads of prickly pear cactus. In her tiny body she produces a disproportionally abundant supply of carminic acid, the essence of her deep crimson. Cochineal delivers up to thirty times as much dye per ounce as other natural sources European dyers had previously relied upon. Only the female of the species produces the color. She spends her time as a “stay-on-the-pad” Mom, concentrating solely on prodigiously laying eggs and transforming her cactus diet into the stuff of her red dye. (The male, equipped with wings, as she is not, gets around to mate with as many females as possible, and dies after a week; a short, frantic, but possibly satisfying life.)

The conquistadors “discovered” this particularly vibrant, lasting, multishaded red in textiles in the markets and communities and palaces around Oaxaca, Mexico. There, both the bug and the cactus were already being carefully cultivated by farmers for maximum yield. They saw that with judicious mixing with acids such as lime juice, this accommodating cochineal red easily reincarnates as purple and pink, burgundy, and scarlet all the way to reddish-orange. The Aztec rulers of the period considered the red that cochineal produced so valuable they demanded sacks of the dried insects as tribute from their subjects, a practice the Spanish quickly adopted throughout their Americas as they moved to corner the world market for this “new red.” Meanwhile, for centuries in Peru the cochineal population flourished naturally, without personal care and feeding. In addition to its functional everyday use in clothing and pottery design, red was a staple of the elaborately beautiful shrouds with which the early Peruvian civilizations buried their dead at least as far back as 200 BC. Over time it became apparent to the Peruvians that cochineal was a resource to be farmed and exploited. Peru today produces 90 percent of the cochineal consumed in the world — about 200 tons a year.

“The red dyes that were available elsewhere in the world before the appearance of cochineal couldn’t produce the kind of saturation of color and the intensity, the color fastness and resistance to light that cochineal did,” said Anderson. “And each cochineal was very productive and efficient, an ideal new product to bring to the potential worldwide market.”

Nicolasa Chávez, who worked with Anderson and Padilla on the show in her capacity as MOIFA’s curator for its Latino/ Hispano/Spanish collections, remains impressed by “the versatility of the little bug. Without much effort, it can contribute to a vivid range of colors that were quickly found to be desirable in so many parts of the world for a wide number of applications, from the finest portrait paintings to decoration of a functional home sewing box.”

Spain, which controlled Mexico and Peru, tightly protected the source and the secret of cochineal. For about a century and a half, the true nature of the “lady of red” remained a mystery to other Europeans, and the Spanish were happy to keep it that way. Europeans thought cochineal was a form of plant life, a special kind of “berrie”; the Spanish chroniclers misleadingly, perhaps intentionally, referred to it as a grana (a small seed). It was not until the development of the microscope in the seventeenth century that the world gained a closer look into the true nature of cochineal.

“Textiles were the largest industry in Europe, and the economic, political, scientific, and artistic impact of this little insect was huge. Spain’s empire was supported very importantly by cochineal itself,” Anderson pointed out.

“From the perspective of what the Folk Art Museum usually does, we did not think in the beginning this exhibition was going to be so artistically broad,” recalled Padilla. “But cochineal red represents a direct link between the artisanal work of the New World and the ‘fine’ art of the rest of the world in various forms — textiles, painting, ceramics, map-making, furniture.”

The extensive presentation at MOIFA fills several galleries in two large wings of the building. It offers some surprisingly varied examples, drawn from sources near and far, of how people in so many parts of the world have admired and valued the rich ranges of red delivered by these indigenous insects of the Americas. “This exhibit is about all art,” Anderson explained passionately. “Through the cochineal connection, we were able to include folk art not as an add-on but as a true part of the large world of art.”

Would you expect to see here a cochineal-red chair from the home of Napoleon and Josephine in Malmaison, France? Or a sixteenth-century portrayal of El Salvador clad in a cochineal-red garment, painted by El Greco and brought from the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain? The powerful Medici family of Italy controlled much of the dyeing and cloth manufacturing industries of Tuscany and had a special appreciation of the new red. Consequently, there is here a 1576–77 Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún from the Medici Library that shows in detail the cultivation of cochineal in Mexico. (The observant Sahagún, it must be reported, also wrote of the use of cochineal in Mexico to enhance cosmetics “for harlots and witches,” a ploy, it is noted elsewhere, later adopted in England by “loose women with painted faces.”)

There is a vestlike coat, or coatee, of a nineteenth-century British army general, radiating a deep cochineal red that illustrates the officer’s importance; the traditional British “redcoat” in the ranks wore a lesser and cheaper red, which probably made him no less a target. There is an unusually gentle eighteenth-century French Gobelin tapestry depicting a girl feeding chickens, her grain sack a rich red, the whole surrounded by a garland of red-flecked flowers. And, not far from these and carrying the same cochineal bloodlines are such treasures of the Americas as a red woven Wari shirt worn on the Peruvian coast somewhere between AD 600 and 900, and a deeply red-tinted Peruvian Chimu shirt from farther up the coast three or four hundred years later, both well before the arrival of the “discoverers.” (The dry climate of Peru has allowed many of the ancient weavings to survive, some, to be sure, as fragments. The colors remain vivid. The weather of Mexico has not been so kind.)

Nearby, there is a fifteenth-century Chilean man’s shirt of camelid hair and feathers from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an eighteenth-century writing chest from Mexico carefully decorated with gold leaf and paint of cochineal red. There is a late eighteenth-century sociohistoric testimony, a painting in oil on copper of a “pureblood Creole and a Spanish woman,” brought from the Museo de América in Madrid. And from the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire, a 1758 painted map of New Mexico prepared by Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, part of the New Mexico History Museum collection.

In New Mexico and the Southwest, and as far as the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest, the indigenous artisans unraveled Spanish blankets and uniforms and English cloth, and in a dazzling display of recycling ingenuity wove them into flashing red robes and blankets, which, of course, they occasionally agreed to sell back to the European immigrants. The display’s Lakota courting blanket, a medicine-man bonnet from the Teton Sioux and an octopus bag from the Great Lakes, all nineteeth century, are impressive examples of the Native Americans’ appreciation of cochineal red and their ingenuity in obtaining and working with it.

Spain carefully and prof itably marketed cochineal throughout Europe as long as its monopoly lasted. Eventually, economics being what they are, even Spain’s long-time enemy Britain was allowed to buy the dye for its vast textile industry. In addition to its natural affinity for animal fibers such as silk and wool, cochineal red also found its way into the varnish that gave an extra luster — and some say tone — to Stradivarius violins. It earned a place on the palettes of the great artists of the day, although its chemical content made it less durable on paintings or paper than it was on textiles made from animal products. Nonetheless, among the painters who appreciated the delicacies of “American red” and favored it, often as a glaze, were names such as Rembrandt, Velásquez, Zurbarán, and Tintoretto.

“Many of these artists made their commissions producing portraits of wealthy, important, powerful men and women, and those elites wanted to be seen clearly that way in their portraits,” observed Padilla. “Red was the immediately recognizable symbol of all that. They sat for their portraits in fine silks and wool of deep, rich red before draperies and tapestries of the finest red fabrics. Cochineal produced the telling range of reds, and the artists did the rest.”

Through various globalization trade routes, business partnerships, and occasional piracy, cochineal red also reached Japan and China, where selected wool and silk fabrics and the “foreign red” made common bond. A nineteenth-century Chinese silk wedding banner displayed here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Japanese jinabaori, a military garment for high-ranking officers, indicate the far-reaching appeal of this particular red.

Eventually, like the Spanish Empire itself, cochineal ceded power to changing times, notably the creation of industrially produced dyes. But the circle of creativity from the artisanal Americas to the great halls of Europe and Asia and back again, the appreciation of traditional materials, and the timelessness of cochineal red still prevail and contribute significantly to the distinctiveness of this exhibit. The tiny opulent ambassador of the New World traveled the globe and has returned to particular prominence in Mexico, Peru, and the American Southwest, welcomed home and celebrated now by the current trend to artisanal works and natural, nonindustrial dyes.

Consider Lisa Trujillo’s radiant pink-flavored tapestry carefully descended from originally dark cochineal dye by the addition of quantities of lime juice. With her husband Irvin, she has been natural-dying and weaving in Chimayo, New Mexico, for thirty years. The piece, entitled Crazy at Heart, was selected a few years ago for the collection of the Museum of International Folk Art.

Irvin Trujillo’s family has practiced the arts of dyeing and weaving in New Mexico since the 1750s, he said, and he learned the value of red directly from his father. Holding a couple of pounds of dried Peruvian cochineal bugs, worth about $250, he recalled, “My dad used to say that the color was the most important part of the piece. It doesn’t matter what the design is, if it’s red or some shade of it, it goes. That’s what I’ve found, too.”

It goes for Padilla. “One of my favorite pieces in the exhibit,” she enthused, “is a cochineal red evening gown made by contemporary Navajo fashion designer and weaver Orlando Dugi. He said that although he had no real experience using cochineal, he had begun a “red collection,” imagining the women in his ancestral society wearing beautiful dresses, all cochineal-dyed.”

Who would have imagined that a journey across continents and centuries could be such a colorful adventure, with a little bug as a traveling companion?

Les Daly has written for Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other publications. He wrote about Balinese masks for the fall 2014 El Palacio.