Texas Tech University

Red That Colored the World

 September 18, 2018 - January 17, 2019


The color red, with its brilliant hue, has inspired artists' imaginations and seduced viewers for millennia. And we have a small insect to thank for this magical color.

Red trunkChest and diamond-twill skirt fabric. Museum of International Folk Art, IFAF Collection, FA.1979.25.1. Skirt fabric, ca. 1950s, Teotitlán del Valle, México, wool dyed with cochineal, Courtesy of Walter Anderson Frontispiece, 1517‒20.

The exhibition, The Red That Colored the World, combines new research and original scholarship to explore the history and widespread use in art of cochineal, an insect-based dye source for the color red whose origins and use date to the pre-Columbian Americas.

The exhibition translates the cochineal story into three dimensions, following the precious bug juice and its use in art from Mexico to Europe to the U.S. and beyond. The exhibition highlights more than 60 objects including textiles, sculpture, paintings, decorative arts and, clothing from the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, private lenders, and museums around the country. The exhibition explores the history of cochineal and the seductive visual nature of red. The objects reflect the unique international uses of color, revealing its role in the creative process, and the motivations of artists in their choice of materials.

Artists and dyers for centuries strived to find the color source to rival the best reds of nature and to express the spirit, symbolism, and sustenance of life. Their quest ended in the Aztec marketplaces of 16th-century Mexico, where Spanish explorers encountered the American cochineal bug. The bug created an unparalleled range of reds with substantial economic value. Its ensuing global spread launched an epic story of empire and desire that pushed art, culture, and trade to the edge of the unknown.

Pre-Columbian weavers used cochineal. So did El Greco, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. Hispano saint makers and Navajo weavers of the 18th- and 19th-century American Southwest followed suit, as did 20th century-Spanish design icon Mariano Fortuny. Synthetic dyes eclipsed natural sources in the late 19th century, but cochineal's cachet never completely waned. Through such international objects, the exhibition follows the story to today, where cochineal and the color red remain hot commodities in cosmetics and commercial products, contemporary art, fashion and design, and other expressions of popular culture.

bush gownArnold Scaasi designed red dress worn by Laura Bush for a Dec. 7, 2003 portrait with President George W. Bush in front of the White House Christmas Tree. Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. White House photo by Eric Draper.

Along with The Red That Colored the World, the Museum of Texas Tech draws upon its own excellent clothing and textiles collection, the Bush Library and private individuals for the companion exhibition Ladies in Red. From a dress worn by former first lady Laura Bush to the red suit worn by former Head Basketball Coach Marsha Sharp when the Lady Raiders won the NCAA championship and Texas Tech cheerleader uniforms, this exhibition shows how red features prominently in a range of clothing from high fashion to school spirit.

Inspired by the exhibition, the Caprock Art Quilters challenged themselves to create quilts around the color red. The results are on view in the Red, Hot & Quilted exhibition.

The Red That Colored the World, organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM and circulating through GuestCurator Traveling Exhibitions, has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.