The three words ‘work’, ‘blue’, ‘paper’, are starting to emerge from my journey to WuMu. The fundamental focus of my practice is the way that materials and the performative act of interacting with them, can generate meaning. I have come to China with an understanding of the European traditional methods of making paper. When the Arabs brought the invention of paper from its original source in China to Europe, they had to modify the method because of the availability of materials. In China paper is made with plant fibres such as the Mulberry bark. Lacking this plant, the Western papermakers chose to use rags – initially made of linen and hemp, and then cotton as its use spread. Thus, paper making became an elegant way to recycle old clothes.
I have come to China with some paper and paper pulp that I made in Britain. One paper is white, made from the offcuts of the clothes that have been hand sewn by members of the Tudor group. The rags came from various scraps of hemp and linen, including antique, handwoven examples. This paper then represents a paper that was possible in 16th century early modern Europe. The second paper is blue and is made from reject jeans from a Swedish company that make jeans with organic cotton and use as environmentally friendly dyeing techniques as possible. As a company that taps into the latest social consumer trends towards the eco-friendly and ethical work practices they were happy to give me their reject jeans for processing into paper. While white or beige rags where easily obtained in the past when traditional European clothing involving undergarments of undyed linen, hemp or cotton. These days the prevailing rag has to be that of blue denim jeans – a durable fabric dyed with cheap indigo for originally made for workers that has become the most global item of fashion.
By taking this European paper to China I am returning it to is roots of invention. I took my paper on a trip up the Yulong mountains of Yunnan to learn how to make paper the Naxi way from a Dongba master living in the small village of WuMu. The Dongba culture of the minority Naxi is ancient, their stories written in their own hieroglyphic writing on their handmade paper contain memories of a distant past as nomads before settling down as farmers. Dongba paper is similar to Chinese paper, except that instead of using Mulberry bark they use a local plant that grows in the mountains (Daphne tangutica). All the processes are done by hand and the act of making it is in itself significant. At one point I put on my 16th century European clothes whilst processing the paper, this prompted one of the Dongba masters to put on his ceremonial Dongba clothes. He explained that it was good to wear these clothes while making the paper as the painted gods on his paper crown helped bless the proceedings. I find a resonance in the way the clothes they wear can alter the meaning of their practice. Furthermore, I could not help but notice that the standard work wear of the Naxi women involved blue aprons, blue caps, and a blue trimmed cushion for their backs. The material of this blue Naxi workwear was the same as that used by companies such as Blåkläder (Swedish for ‘blueclothes‘) to make workers’ overalls, the relative of blue denim jeans. Denim, in turn, apparently has its roots in 16th century Europe as a fabric used to make sailor’s trousers in Genoa. Indeed, I have learnt from the Tudor group that blue, made from indigo from woad, was very much used as the colour of workers and servants being cheap and humble.
I have now returned to Beijing with drawings made in the mountain Naxi village on my 16th century European hemp/linen paper and my ethical denim paper; the Dongba paper that I made in WuMu; some Daphne bark that I have collected from the hills overlooking Suhe; and the traditional blue workwear of the Naxi women. Next week I will visit the Chinese indigo plants growing on Little Donkey Urban Farm. When it is ready to harvest I will experiment in extracting the pigment and dyeing my Dongba paper blue. I plan to dig deeper and follow the trails between the workwear, the work of making paper, its materials and the colour blue with everyone at Vitamin Creative Space.