Unearthing the Secrets of Color
By Dr. Kim N. Richter
Senior Research Specialist
Getty Research Institute
Artist Sandy Rodriguez finds her colors in the natural world. She’s delved into the art and science of making her own natural pigments from minerals, plants, and insects collected during research trips across the western U.S., often following Indigenous recipes.
A former Getty Museum educator and artist-in-residence at Art + Practice, Rodriguez positions her art-making within the deep cultural history of the Americas. “I feel part of a larger tradition, doing work that continues to be important for our generation,” she said.
In her current series, the Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón, the artist draws upon the iconography and style of the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic 16th-century Mexican manuscript written in Spanish and Nahuatl (the Indigenous language of central Mexico). Her work is a commentary on urgent issues of our times, including contemporary U.S. immigration policy, linking current violence against immigrants to atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous people during the colonial past. Yet, her paintings simultaneously celebrate Indigenous art and knowledge—then and now.
In a recent conversation, we asked Rodriguez how she got started.
Sandy Rodriguez: I come from three generations of Mexican and Chicana painters, so painting is in the blood. While growing up, I would run into my grandmother’s studio in Tijuana, and she would say, “Don’t touch the sable brushes. Here are your supplies for your own paintings.” It must have been in high school when I realized that my career path was also going to be in the arts.
Kim Richter: For the series that you have been working on for the past few years, you have been making your own colors. Tell me more about your research on colors and how it figures into your maps.
SR: The story begins with cochinilla (or cochineal red) and the Mapa de la Region de Alta y Baja Califas. I mapped out colors found in the floristic provinces across Alta and Baja California while simultaneously doing field research in the desert regions of the area. As artist-in-residence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook, California, I had been working in hand-processed cochineal paint on canvas and European paper while teaching a methods and materials painting workshop. I came to a deeper understanding that my support material could conceptually add meaning to the content of my work and represent ideas, history, and place. I would invite my students to examine the featured colorant of the week, grind it, smell it, and share stories around a large table. I also realized I had an opportunity to go deeper with my research on color. During the six-month residency, I worked with unhoused residents and hospital staff in a Recuperative Care Center.
KR: This relationship between arts and medicinal uses of these materials wouldn’t be surprising to anybody in Mesoamerica. You actively seek out those connections. What is your process and how did you become interested in Indigenous uses of colors in particular?
SR: As part of my research I go out on a few field study trips each quarter to the different floristic provinces of California and across the western United States. I am working with an herbalist who has an extensive library of ethnobotany texts and guides to floras of the Western states. There’s an ethnobotany database where you can search any plant name to learn about how it is used for foods, drugs, dyes, and fibers by Native American peoples. You’ll find out which plant part was used to produce the color blue, which leaves were used as a tea to treat a sore throat, and how a poultice of plant material was used to treat abrasions. You begin to understand plant knowledge over time and by region. I cross-reference edible, medicinal, and utilitarian uses of plants—for example, a particular type of plant could be used for color, food, and embalming—to gain a broader perspective on the history of the plant’s use in the region.
At the Getty Research Institute, I ran across Diana Magaloni Kerpel’s The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex. She discusses Book Eleven of the Florentine Codex and how it functioned as a 16th-century treatise on color for the indigenous Nahua people. It was exciting at that moment to then dive deeper into a material of art history that was connected to my life. I was raised by three generations of Mexican painters who were educated according to the European canon of painting, sharing colors and techniques with me from that perspective. Now I cross-reference several art histories, do field research, and consult with experts from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to reconnect with Indigenous knowledge.
KR: Diana Magaloni Kerpel’s research revealed the deeper meaning in Nahua artists’ deliberate choice of colors and the science behind making them. Likewise, there are many layers of meaning folded into the use of your color choices. How did you figure out how to make these colors?
SR: Prior to making color for my own artworks, I did years of research on methods and materials of painting in European art using the resources in the stacks and special collections of the GRI. I became very familiar with hand-processing color into paint using historic pigments, binders, and ratios from a variety of time periods. Over fourteen years at the Getty, I taught a number of programs based on this research for a range of audiences. I also learned so much from the conservation reports in museum object files about the training of artists in different time periods. I applied this prior knowledge as I studied the images and poetic text of the Florentine Codex and experimented with materials in the kitchen and studio after reading.
KR: You’re using the iconography of the Florentine Codex, but you’re dealing with very contemporary topics. Why are you using the visual language of the Florentine Codex to portray issues resulting from our country’s current immigration policy?
SR: This is the 500-year anniversary of the Conquest and the Florentine Codex has never been more relevant. We are living through the worst part of a pandemic year that has claimed more than 300,000 residents’ lives in less than a year. We are also turning a corner on four years of horrifying abuses of the last president, especially the ICE raids, family separation, and caging of children inflicted on Indigenous bodies and communities. Tlacuilos (the Aztec word for artists/scholars/scribes) are integrating visual language from past and present to tell histories of this new time for those who survive.
In the second map, De las Señales y Pronosticós and I.C.E. Raids de Califas, I was thinking about how to represent the immigration raids of early 2018, when the federal administration penalized the state of California for declaring itself a sanctuary state. Immigration raids were conducted at places like Northgate Market and 7-Eleven, prominent immigrant-owned and immigrant-staffed businesses. It was here that I was looking very closely at Book Twelve of the Florentine Codex to make some of those concrete connections between communities of color targeted with violence in the past and the Central American and Mexican communities that are being targeted today. How do we try to understand moments when someone like Perla Morales is snatched off the street in front of her children? How do we keep these critical conversations in the forefront, while still shedding a light on past histories that resonate with this current moment? I went back to Book Twelve and studied the visual narratives for cues on how to depict the contemporary scenes painted in vignettes on the right side of the map. I studied the compositions, economy of line, weight of the marks, and tried to update those visual narratives as I had done with the first map.
KR: As we were talking about the conquest of Mexico in 1521 as part of our Florentine Codex initiative, we keep emphasizing that this conquest is not over. Indigenous people of the Americas, not just Latin America, are traumatized over and over again. This includes policies in their countries that led them to leave in the first place. It’s this long, never-ending story that didn’t end in 1521. The conquest is ongoing.
SR: In my work, I collapse the past and the present to underscore the ongoing process of colonization, conquest, resistance and its contemporary effects, and I also learn from and reference deep Indigenous knowledge that is as alive and vibrant now as it was when it was recorded. It is through working with a multitude of scholars, records, documents, maps, and natural materials to inform my interpretation of space where various histories are combined, juxtaposed, recovered, and re-envisioned, painted as a codex, a macro and micro view of humanity in relationship with land, time, and power.
Originally published by The Iris, 01.13.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.