COCHINEAL – ‘The colour of cactus blood’ WRKSHP 2 – FF educational outreach 2017


First food residency  :Community outreach program  :October 2017

Workshop 2 :Cochineal : ‘the colour of cactus blood’:


T i t l e s :

‘A history of seeing red’ , ‘The colour of cactus blood’ ‘The blood of the gods’.

Names in other languages : Mixteca -Nduco ,Nahuatl -nocheztli,Maya -Mucay, Zapotec – bee,biaa,bia due. Árabe -Dude.

M y t h o l o g y :

“The legendary explanation places two Olmec gods in a fierce battle for possession of a field of nopal cacti. The struggle spattered the gods’ blood onto the cactus leaves, making a strong red ink called Nacheztli, translated, blood of the nopal cactus. Generations used this dye, thought to be the battle residue, for body paint, food and wool dyes.”

O r i g i n s:

Cochineal – ‘La Cochinilla’ is actually a tiny insect that feeds on the ducts of the Nopal like a baby on a teat. People often mistake it’s rich red colouring for the ‘blood’ of the insect but in fact about a quarter of the insect’s body weight consists of carminic acid (which it produces to deter predators);it is this acid, essentially, which gives the cochineal it’s colourful extract.The colour can only be extracted from the females.

After attaching itself to the nopal leaf, the female cochinilla waits fertilization by the male; then after laying eggs on the spear, spins a white milky cocoon around the eggs. In three months the infants mature. The insects are then scraped from the leaf and ground into a powder, producing an extract known as carminic acid. This extract generates the vibrant hues of red dye.With a short life cycle, the females only live for 3 months , the baby walks on the nopal for 3 days and then feeds.

The Nopal thrives with rain and sunshine whereas cochineal must protect themselves from burning in the strong rays of sun and being battered by the harsh tropical rains and finally from a whole array of clever predators.To help sustain themselves they encase themselves in a special white powder and carefully consider sheltered positions on the pad of the Nopal.The wax of the Nopal also provides additional protection.


K e y F a c t s :

  • When Cortes invaded Mexico in 1519, he was in awe to find Montezuma and other high members of society dressed in robes dyed with bright vivid red. He was also amazed to see the native women’s hands and breasts painted the same intense color.
  • Cochineal is a strong sign of abundance and prosperity after it became a product so sought after for the finery of the people of the West , mainly for dyeing clothing and being used as a tint for European painters in medieval times.
  • The famous redcoats for the British army were dyed with Cochineal.
  • At one point during the Aztec empire , the cochineal dye was the most valuable export just below silver.
  • Peru is one of the most important producers of cochineal and accounts for 85-90% of world production sadly commercial production in Mexico collapsed in the late 1800s due to the rise of of artificial colouring in the 19th century which in turn reduced the production of Cochineal.
  • Several countries, including Chile, Botswana and the Canary islands, also cultivate cochineal and are together responsible for the remaining 10-15% of production.

Today the demand for cochineal is making a comeback as consumers return to natural products: it is used as a fabric and cosmetics dye and as a natural food colouring and is common in many of the foods we eat today.

A c t i v i t y :


Our workshop will explore the magical process of printing and painting with cochineal colour- experimenting with the Carmine tint and combining it with various chemical elements that can subtly affect the colouring of the tint, playful elements such Bicarbonate of soda , lemon and vinegar and even the PH of the paper can dramatically effect the hues produced on the page.It is quite magical to watch the colour transformations.We will further experiment with natural edible artworks painting our newly mixed tone directly onto Tortilla canvases!


T H E M E S :

Participants will be invited to paint modern day warriors, people and creatures with the fire of life and resilience in them , similar to the Aztec sun war god Huitzilopochti.

Looking at symbolic imagery around the blood and soul of nature and the Aztec gods and spirits that nurture these magical world resources.

We shall take inspiration from the Nopal as a metaphor for a living and breathing human element and the Cochineal tint like the ancient and wise blood and vivid colour in humanity.We shall encourage playful mark making to confess secrets of the human heart of fire. Tuning into our inner warriors and spirits to come to fruition on the paper.

More specifically we will be looking at the ‘Axolotl’, the special Mexican salamander – or ‘walking fish’ (although it is actually an amphibian) whose magical characteristics are all about magical Mexican resilience.

‘The name “Axolotl” comes from the Aztec language, “Nahuatl”. One of the most popular translations of the name connects the Axolotl to the god of deformations and death, Xolotl, while the most commonly accepted translation is “water-dog” (from “atl” for water, and “xolotl”, which can also mean dog)’


Born in the beautiful Xochimilco canals of Mexico City and the ancient Aztec kingdom of Tenochtitlan.This little cheeky and charming creature is only found here and can only survive in shallow fresh water canals.

The Axolotl is a bit of a Peter pan animal , it is one of the few animals that exhibit ‘Neoteny’ which is a process that means it retains its juvenile characteristics until it dies, this is perhaps why it is considered so adorable.

Most salamanders are able to regenerate body structures to some extent. But the Axolotl is extra special in that it can regenerate not only limbs, but also its jaws, spinal cord, skin and internal organs. Furthermore after these parts regenerate there is no evidence of scar tissue.For this factor the Axolotls represent immortality ,they can even receive transplanted organs from other bodies without rejection. They are 1000 x more resistant to cancer than other mammals. For these shining qualities , Axolotls are studied closely by scientists. Sadly despite all of their super powers the Axolotl is becoming extinct , due to the polluted waters and expanding city ,there is also a problem with them being over hunted to be used for medicinal purposes or stolen away as pets. It is estimated there are only around 100 left in the wild.

To the Aztecs, the salamander’s regenerative power was like that of the lake system that sustained them.There is a lot to be learned from these little floaty creatures with regards to our own roles in the eco systems and the narrative of pushing the limitations of our own poor earth , without considering the more holistic effects we have on our environment. Aside from the horror and sacrificial slaughter of the Aztecs, there is much wisdom and magic of these old civilisations before us and how so many of their beliefs and systems were mirrored and based on existing animals and the natural world around them.Society take note!


A i m s :

  • Engage participants with a magical transformative visual activity explaining the origins of this magical tint which already is so present in our lives and diets without us realising. Giving folk a sense of the system and origins of the food,clothing , products they eat and wear.
  • Explore other Magical creatures and myths associated to themes of ‘resilience’ such as Aztec gods and the Axolotl.
  • Playful artistic experimentation with an exotic and natural material.
  • Producing a final product which can be taken away and treasured.
  • Inspired by the folkloric origins of the cochineal aiding to translate exciting mental imagery.

*Idea for extended activity* (-Reference to the way cochineal is cultivated in little woven tubes-sacred messages of the heart painted with colouring encased in the woven tubes and hung on the Cactus pad forms like the cochineal.)

M a t e r i a l s :

  • Cochineal -dried insect form to be ground and crushed into pigment.
  • Vinegar
  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Lime
  • A variety of PH papers
  • Personalised Cactus printing stamps by FF artist Harriet Bruce.
  • Paint brushes
  • Palettes
  • Mixing plates
  • Waterpots
  • Babywipes
  • gloves

P o t e n t i a l w o r k i n g g r o u p s :

Youths – 13-21yrs

Children – 5-12yrs

Families – Parent and tots – 3-5yrs

Adults -18-100yrs



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